By Dr. Terry Macaluso, Head of School
I USED TO HAVE A FRAMED CARTOON IN MY OFFICE IN WHICH A little girl is scolding a little boy, her finger shaking under his nose, a look of incandescent rage on her face. The caption is, “I’m not yelling at you; this is what leadership looks like!” Maybe. It’s tough to define leadership. Like other topics of massive complexity, I go back to Plato—always a good place to start. Republic, the dialogue in which Plato, through the irritating and endlessly questioning voice of Socrates, tries to define justice.
Socrates starts the conversation (he always does) by asking his interlocutor a simple question like, “What is justice?” The response is a series of reasonable examples of “just actions.” But examples of just action are not the same thing as a definition of justice, itself. And so it goes through several verses. It’s always the same problem—trying to grasp the essence of a concept. But the way to the conclusion follows a similar path. A definition of a thing is not an example that depicts it. The meaning of the concept is not the same as the object or action it depicts. Leadership is a concept that one contemplates, not a thing that one can capture.
To reflect on something more contemporary (still—made in 1957—so, kind of contemporary), the film Twelve Angry Men is a useful example. This is a classic, and it depicts, perhaps better than anything else I’ve seen, the character of the lone individual who, against all odds…all arguments, stands firm in his conviction that the jury cannot find the defendant guilty. Why? The evidence is not incontrovertible. The other eleven members of the jury are focused on extraneous things, i.e., getting out of the hot jury room, getting to the baseball park in time to see the opening pitch. What makes juror number one (Henry Fonda) an example of American leadership is the way in which he patiently and firmly wins over the other eleven men through rational discussion.
From Athens to the jury room—a 2,000-year leap. Of course, there are hundreds of theories, beliefs, and examples of leadership. I’m especially intrigued by consultants who will “teach you to lead; help you understand your role as leader…” having never, themselves, served in a leadership role. It’s a little bit like school. Everyone went to one, so everyone should be an authority on education, right?
who had served to take their rightful places in the social order.
VERY QUICKLY THE CONVERSATION FOCUSED LESS ON WHETHER WE SHOULD CLOSE; WE WERE, NOT SURPRISINGLY, MORE CONCERNED ABOUT OUR FAMILIES.
What I’ve just done is give you examples of leadership; I haven’t defined it. I’m not really certain that that should be the objective. But just by recognizing a moment when leadership is necessary can make a startling difference in the lives of everyone that leader serves.
The most powerful “leadership lesson” I’ve experienced started on March 2, 2020, when we announced to students—and minutes later, to their parents—that we were going to leave the campus for what we thought, at the time, would be three weeks, four weeks, tops!
We were the first to take this step, which was not universally applauded. My thinking was simple: The nursing home where the virus is being introduced in the United States is in our neighborhood; we shouldn’t stay in Kirkland. Literally, the entire Senior Leadership Team was seated around the boardroom conference table. I had considered closing over the weekend, but had been talked off the ledge by cooler heads who opined that a rush to the campus on a Sunday afternoon might not be the best way to go.
Very quickly the conversation focused less on whether we should close; we were, not surprisingly, more concerned about our families. What would they think? How could they deal with this? Is anyone else doing this? Then the leadership thing happened. There was a sudden sense of absolute consensus around the table, and someone said, “Let’s lead.”
The impact of that decision on me was instant second guessing. You know, when you make a difficult decision, and for a second you feel confident—because you made the decision—and then you suddenly feel like you were wrong. That feeling like you’re wrong lasts a lot longer than the moment of confidence.
The lesson for me was that I didn’t make that decision alone. I relied on my team to tell me what they really thought—and they did. I relied on my team to think about the impact this decision would have for their families; three members of the team have children enrolled at EPS. They were about to do what every EPS family had to do…cope.
Finally, the lesson in leadership that is so clear to me now is that the ability to build a team of advisors is a leader’s first responsibility. Because I trust them, they have the collective capacity to influence me in a host of ways. They do that every day. There isn’t a decision made at EPS that hasn’t been dissected, reassembled, and then challenged again. A leader is a person who builds a great team—and then listens to them.