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Leaders and Moral Courage

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One of the most difficult things to do is to let go of the familiar, of the terrain you have crossed and mastered.  It is, for some, frightening to ask if habits and practices that have developed over time and served well are still the right answers for the present problems and purposes. Personally, some of these habits helped us learn and grow; some of them guided us through professional and personal hard moments. Professionally, all of us have habits and practices that contributed to our success at our jobs.  We even wonder if we are wasting time to reexamine those well-worn paths to success. But...these past few decades are unrelenting with daily challenges and unanticipated demands.  

Two Right Options
The educator's dilemma arises within the domain of what's good enough. An "acceptable" number of students graduate, and an "acceptable" number of students go on to college or join the work force.  Where did that "acceptable" number come from and whose hand moves it when we glance away? We lead schools, institutions that exist at the core of our society; they are expected to both keep pace with change and hold true to tradition. We choose often between two right options, trying to find which one is the better one or which serves a higher good.

Finding Moral Courage
Enter the need for moral courage. Nearly every decision or action is accompanied by some degree of risk, however small.  Here, from Rushworth Kidder:

So it is with moral courage, where danger is endured for the sake of an overarching commitment to conscience, principles, or core values.  Here too, the key lies in properly assessing the "measure" of peril.  Underestimating the danger, and our moral courage will be written off as imprudence.  It will be seen as pointless self-sacrifice, doomed from the outset because we never understood the difficulties we would encounter.  But overestimate the danger by inflating mundane annoyances into fantasies of fright-and then riding bravely out against them in battles we're sure to win-and the world will credit us with nothing more than bluster, bravura, and rant. (pp. 109-110)

christmas-tree-pixabay.pngIn another book read a long time ago, with a title and author long forgotten, a compelling story about a well-liked Superintendent's generosity reveals the real dangers that lurk for leaders.  It was Christmas Eve and the Superintendent, who lived in the district with his family, was getting ready to head home and decided to offer the custodian, who had been suffering hard times, the Christmas tree that had been decorating the office. Following the holiday, a Board member accused the Superintendent of stealing district property. Those in the district who had some disagreements with the Superintendent joined in the attack. It was on the front page of the local newspaper, was embarrassing to him and his family. Ultimately the accusations continued. He lost his ability to be effective as trust was eroded. He left the job and the people he loved working with and for. 

From Where Do Our Dangers Emanate?
It is plain common sense that if the ways schools are organized and operate, if teaching and learning continue as they were in the century past, can we state with confidence that we are serving our students well?  A danger exists in ignoring the danger in remaining with habits and practices from years past. If following one's heart to offer someone in need the opportunity give away a tree rather than discard it is a simple and quick decision before schools close for a week or more. Yet the fallout strongly impacts a well-intentioned leader's life.  We wonder if the tree created a family memory for the custodian and that in the long run, that human exchange of a gift during the giving season enriched both men's lives. But, who knows?

Know Yourself and Be Yourself
Leading in this century will always happen under the cloud of urgency. And, criticism is always just around the corner.  So as the days grow shorter and we light trees and our homes, families gather and we think about the important things in life. Our message is: Leaders, know yourself and be yourself.

Change is something we talk about so much it becomes an abstract, academic exercise. But, every decision and every change leavens possibilities, some we plan and others surprise us. The most important thing is that we can live with whatever arises because our hearts were clear and true to our calling.


Wishing all of you a joyous holiday season. We will be in a modified holiday posting schedule, taking a break, and spending time with family from 12/24-1/3.  We hope you will be doing the same.  We will have a very interesting guest post on 12/29.  Watch for it!

Kidder, R.M. (2005). Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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