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