Governor Andrew Cuomo, Commissioner John King, and Leadership

What a start to 2012. On Tuesday, Commissioner John King suspended School Improvement Grant funds after forewarning such an action in a December 27, 2011 memo, and Governor Cuomo followed on Wednesday with a statement in his State of the State Address about the lack of progress in teacher evaluation systems and school management inefficiencies. The New York State Teachers Union (NYSUT) promptly responded to both leaders’ actions, and so it goes in this high paced era of school reform. Politics aside, the time is ripe for an entry on leadership, trust, and followership.

Warren Bennis (2009) wrote in On Becoming a Leader about a press conference Nikita Kruschev gave in the 1960s at the Washington Press Club.  When prompted by a reporter’s question in the audience, Kruschev presented a powerful lesson on leadership and followership. “‘Today you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor, Stalin.  You were one of his closest aides and colleagues during those years.  What were you doing all that time?’  Khruschev’s face got read. ‘Who asked that?’ he roared.  All 500 faces turned down.  ‘Who asked that?’ he insisted.  Silence. ‘That’s what I was doing.’ he said. One of the tragedies of most organizations is that people will let the leaders make mistakes even when they themselves know better.” (Bennis, 2009, p 190)

Years ago in my first administrative job, I had a supervisor who gave me three professional rules to live by.  My favorite was, “Always surround yourself with people who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.”   The rule is simple, but following it requires a culture of trust.  Good leaders know the value of trust and invest time and energy to develop it within their organization.  Good leaders also listen to what their workers have to say.  Perhaps one reason Kruschev never spoke up to Stalin was Stalin’s unwillingness to listen and a lack of trust among Russia’s elite?

Trust leads to transparency and effective two-way communications. Bennis describes four “ingredients” that help create trust:  1) Constancy–no surprises to the group; staying on mission; 2) Congruity–“walk the talk”; 3) Reliability–always present to support workers; and 4) Integrity–follow through on promises and commitments.  (Bennis, 2009, p 152).  Trust building is not something we do as a goal or an action plan.  It’s more about the moral fabric a leader holds that garners trust; and it’s something that is earned over time through the “ingredients” mentioned above.

Most of us have worked for individuals who instilled great trust, respect, and admiration for the person and the manner in which they conducted business.  They raised the bar for everyone, and showed us how vitally important we were to the entire school community. Through their talents and personal integrity, they crafted district-wide cultures that ensured high expectations, optimism, and quality human relations which ultimately lead to high performing school districts.  Exceptional leaders empower us to become exceptional as well, moving us towards greater responsibilities and challenges.

When leaders suppress the voices of others, fail to inspire and nurture others, or build a culture of fear rather than trust, problems are sure to follow.   In Whyte’s “Captains Courageous” the Bronzewings’s near wreckage against the jagged Galapagos Island rocks is a powerful example of a leader’s failure to grow his crew’s “inner sense of captaincy.”  “…Raphael [Captain] had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area:  We had given up our own inner sense of captaincy.  Somewhere inside us we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.” (Whyte, 2001, p 43)

If we hope to circumnavigate the political world of educational leadership and school reform, then we must surely distribute leadership, listen to the crew, and use our hearts and minds to guide our actions and those of others. Our children deserve no less from us.

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