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The Wounded Leader

The Wounded Leader

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Summer 2004 | Volume
61Best of Educational Leadership 2003-2004
 
The Wounded Leader
Richard H. Ackerman and Pat Maslin-Ostrowski 
Crisis can challenge school leaders; it can also seriously wound them. Realleadership means learning and growing from the experience.
A wizened and wise school leader shared the following observation on the eve of a long-deserved retirement: “A good school must learn to bend itself around the strengths andvulnerabilities of its leader.” Part of this assertion affirms enduring, conventional wisdom aboutleadership: that effective leadership in schools requires strength, power, and competence. Yetthe notion that schools also need to acknowledge the vulnerability of their leaders and thepotential of learning from this vulnerability seems far less acceptable. This paradoxnevertheless represents a most hopeful understanding: Although the need for strongleadership in our schools persists, most school leaders recognize that their own leadership is adaily exercise in vulnerability.The landscape of education leadership in the 21st century offers an astounding range of emotional challenges rarely acknowledged or appreciated. For school leaders, developing agenuine sense of self, grounded in one's strengths and vulnerabilities, has become a primaryconcern.For several years, we have listened to the stories of many school leaders who haveexperienced a crisis event in their leadership practice (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002).By their accounts, these experiences wounded them to the core, attacking their identity orintegrity—the very soul of a person's way of being. As we scan the leadership horizon, we findno simple language in the workplace to communicate the feelings of leadership wounding. Yetan integral element of leadership development is learning how leadership truly emerges fromour inner struggles and how we consciously project that inner life onto others.
Summer 2004 | Volume
61Educational Leadership 2004
 
Summer 2004
1
 
Our focus is on understanding what a self-described leadership crisis or wounding experiencemeans to education leaders and how it influences their professional and personal growth anddevelopment. Two essential questions guide our work. First, how does a reasonable, well-intentioned person, who happens to be a school leader, preserve a healthy sense of self in theface of a host of factors that may challenge that self or even lead to a wounding crisis?Second, what perspective on the work of leadership can shed light on these challenges andproduce a mind-set that leaves the individual open to learn and grow from such experiences?
The Wounding Experience
Consider Bruce, a high school principal who had enjoyed nine years of a fulfilling career,replete with accolades for leading a successful, high-performing school. The community knewhim as a tough but fair and honest principal who always attended school events and took thetime to get to know students individually. Yet one morning he woke up to find a scathing letterto the editor in the local newspaper, condemning him as corrupt.An angry parent accused Bruce of manipulating grades so that favored athletes could competein the upcoming football semifinals. He was shocked because he would never do such a thing,and he was deeply disturbed that someone was challenging his ethics, especially in this publicforum. Because the charge against him was false, he believed the school could move forwardafter he assured everyone that he had no part in the matter and that he would get to thebottom of it.But the situation got progressively worse. The letter unmasked questionable practices in theathletics department, and Bruce found himself embroiled in a major controversy. The schoolboard seemed to use the incident as a political football, and the crisis escalated. Soon agitatedparents were storming his office, the superintendent was breathing down his neck, and thestory became headline news. Said Bruce, “I feel like I'm losing control of my life.” On the surface, wounding draws from the intrinsic, chronic tension affecting all leaders. Butwhen others impugn a leader's decisions, motives, and integrity, the leader often experienceswounding at a deeper and more personal level. A crucial event can spark an attack that hasnothing to do with the leader's genuine competence. In this situation, wounding feels like anattack on the heart. Like a physical heart attack, such an experience involves loss of control,powerlessness, fear, and vulnerability. It often forces the leader to confront an essentialquestion: Who am I, really?Bruce thought he knew who he was—a “strong, take-charge” kind of principal—and he thoughthe could fight back and manage his way out of the crisis. That wasn't the case. Angry anddefensive, he lashed out at those individuals who he believed were responsible for hisdownfall; he disconnected from the people he served and began to doubt his own leadership.Bruce was not involved in the athletics scandal, although he admitted that he should haveknown what was going on in his school. But he was a high-profile principal who had had someprevious run-ins with the superintendent. Ultimately, the board voted to fire him.At the time of these troubles, Bruce was embittered, full of rage, and able to see only one sideof the wound's legacy: He was furious that people accused him of being someone he wasn't.Visiting Bruce a few years later, we found that he was able to reflect anew on the woundingexperience. Rather than blame others, he acknowledged that he was responsible for theculture that allowed the incident to occur and that he didn't have the control he thought hehad. He believed that he now had a grasp on who he really was as a leader and that he was adifferent and better principal because of the crisis experience. The meaning of the wound waschanging for Bruce; he was using it to learn about himself and to change for the better.
Summer 2004 | Volume
61Educational Leadership 2004
 
2
 
Leadership Challenges Today
For many educators, a kind of weariness or wariness has set in as expectations forperformance—their own as well as their students'—sometimes far exceed well-intentionedeffort. This dissonance in the education profession makes leadership a risky business. Effectiveand well-intentioned leaders must learn to struggle productively with their ensuing wounds. Itmakes sense that people who know themselves and who can relate genuinely to others byavoiding self-protective roles have a better chance of succeeding in leadership, especiallytoday. Leaders who strive to acknowledge all sides of themselves and who allow all sides of themselves to be acknowledged will increase their capacity to lead in difficult times.Our message is ultimately optimistic: Crisis can be an emergent occasion for transformation.Crisis provides the possibility of breaking free of the current image of the leader. Leaders oftenexperience this vision of change with intensity and distress. Although sustained and repeatedwounding can disrupt lives and schools in seemingly endless ways, most of the leaders wehave been privileged to meet were not incapacitated; indeed, many demonstrated the courageto learn from their wounds.One such leader, Christopher, had spent two successful years as a superintendent. But whenthe school board changed, his management style and vision suddenly fell out of favor.Compounding matters was an unexpected budget shortfall. Although the board gave him avote of confidence, the board chair kept second-guessing his decisions. “Things appeared tobe unraveling,” he said. “Confidence in me was eroding.” His response to the crisis was to tryhard to please the board so he could hold on to his beloved position. Along the way, he lostsight of his own leadership beliefs.In the midst of the turmoil, he found the courage to change his life. He negotiated a year off to reflect on his goals in life and decide what was next in his career. Instead of becomingparalyzed by fear, he used the wounding crisis as a foundation for personal growth. He took ahuge risk and started over in a new setting as middle school principal. Reflecting on what thechange meant to him, he said,For the first time in a long, long time I think I'm pretty comfortable with who I amas an educator, with who I am as a leader. That's probably the healthiest thingthat's come out of this [wounding experience].
Lessons Learned
School leaders must expect messiness and must create conditions that allow space for theirinner work of self-discovery—and for everyone else's. A principal put it well:The nonnegotiable that I come back to most often is being true to myself—heedingthe call of my heart, my core, for better or worse. Sooner or later a true leader isgoing to stir the pot and, if great things happen as a result, is going to getsplattered and slopped on. Spillage is inevitable. (Hallowell, 1997, p. 55)School leaders will almost always be vulnerable to wounding because they reside at a verypublic intersection and are often the knowing or unknowing recipients of the public'sexpectations, hopes, and fears. Many leaders we met described how they learned to deal withthe requirements of their roles, developing strategies for deflecting criticism by growing “scartissue” and “binding” their anxieties in what Donaldson (2001) described so well as “conspiracies of busyness.” But the troublesome feelings that the public's projections createhave the potential to bring about new ways of seeing and being, showing leaders how to liveup to their own truth and circumstances rather than to some heroic ideal.
Summer 2004 | Volume
61Educational Leadership 2004
 
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