My first leadership lesson

Effective leaders stand for something, earning trust and respect, sometimes at the expense of popularity. Sacrifice and risk come with the territory.

In my early teens, I often accompanied my superintendent dad to Ann Arbor School Board meetings. It was a time of cataclysmic cultural change. The friction between old power and the newly empowered brought tempers to a boiling point.

As one of the late night marathons concluded, we found ourselves caught between two sides, the uncomfortable and the impatient. After listening to the go-slow viewpoints outside of the meeting room, a crowd of emotional voices of color encircled us. They wanted to know what my father was going to do about a list of demands which led him to close the high school for a day so the teaching staff could hear directly from the students who created them.

I feared some might take out their frustrations physically. Violence was a nightly dish on the three network news programs. In those days, police were not yet fixtures at board meetings. I felt alone and vulnerable in the middle of a huge ball of anger. For the first time in my life, I thought we might be seriously hurt or killed.

My father somehow remained calm, firmly telling the group he would stay until he heard every voice and could better understand every concern. We stood in the parking lot for at least an hour. Dad made eye contact with each speaker, asked clarifying questions, made notes on his ever present legal pad and thanked them for their willingness to be agents of positive change.

Eventually, the crowd dissipated. A couple of them quietly shook dad’s hand, expressing gratitude for his courage. I remember one comment vividly.

“To some of these folks, you are a visual representation of a hundred years of suffering. It’s not personal. But we’ll be watching.”

When we got to the car I asked him why he put himself in such a dangerous position. He had to know protestors would be outside. Why didn’t we make a more anonymous exit?

“If I don’t listen to them, how can I help them?” he said.

Now I was totally confused. “The people inside want the opposite thing.”

He started the car. We drove home on nearly deserted streets. “There is some truth in every point of view. To ease suffering, we have to understand its source.”

These were complicated words for a thirteen year-old to process. But the short paragraph came up many times at our dinner table and the idea became ingrained in my own psyche when it became my turn to lead.

Perhaps it was our family’s pastoral background and a literal interpretation of Jesus’ work, so often perverted to fit a political agenda. His directive to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is problematic in a world where hateful behavior can be as easy as typing two-hundred and forty characters into a tribal echo chamber.

James R. Detert, writing in the Harvard Business Review ascribes the term “emotional intelligence” to today’s successful leaders. They, “..surround themselves with, and promote, people who help them learn by challenging rather than flattering them. They reward rather than punish those who try new things, even when they don’t go well. They change outdated systems that exclude diverse perspectives.” And they, “..demonstrate, rather than demand, courageous action. They choose.. to be vulnerable — even if their position, gender, race, or other status markers mean they don’t have to.”

That perfectly describes my father.

Daniel Goleman‘s Five Traits of an Effective Leader include, self awareness, self control, a passion for the work that connects to life purpose, demonstrated empathy and the social skills that build bridges when others would build walls. A popularity contest isn’t part of the program.

Every decision my dad made while leading the school district generated both kudos and complaints. In the rear view mirror, even his detractors praised his leadership. “He listened and he was fair,” were the common assessments. Toward the end of dad’s life, I said he and my mother likely had some nice accomodations awaiting them if heaven truly existed.

His answer. “I hope there’s a little hell up there. I’ll be bored without a challenge.”