A Tale of Enduring Leadership – Part 2: Presence & Acknowledgment

Endurance_Shackletons_Lege

Shackleton was, from the start, disarmingly transparent about the work that would be required if the expedition was to succeed. He demolished traditional power structures of the time by requiring all members of his crew, including himself, to conduct their fair share of chores and duties. Shackleton never put himself in a position where himself or his role could be construed as more worthwhile to the expedition than any other’s. After they were forced to abandon their ship Shackleton threw his name in the lot for the few sealskin sleeping bags that were available, as there were too few for everyone to have one. His job was leader, and that did not automatically entitle him to creature comforts at the expense of his crew. Shackleton believed in the power of presence, of participation in the daily life of the crew. Their work was not beneath him, it was essential to the common goal they all shared: the success of the expedition. Too often school leaders manage and direct from above and outside, and too quickly lose touch with details of the important work that happens with children on a daily basis in classrooms and hallways, at recess and lunch, and in partnership with families. These places and moments where children are is why schools exist, and a leader’s participation in them furthers the success of the common goal we all share: the growth of children into healthy and happy adults. In order to lead, you must be intimately and dependably present.

Shackleton knew the power of acknowledging people for who they are and what they bring to the table. He received over 5,000 applications for his expedition. Shackleton passed up far more qualified individuals for those who he believed had the character, skill set, and certain “je ne sais quois” he was looking for. Records report him selecting people who could sing, play the banjo, or answer his sometimes unusual questions in a manner that pleased him. Shackleton understood that to see these other corners of people, to recognize them and name them as valuable and worthy, would strengthen his crew. His team was comprised not of skills but of whole people whose whole selves (including their less typically “seaworthy” talents) were known, acknowledged, and celebrated. As educators we know from working with children that to truly see them, to invest in recognizing their presence and accomplishments in meaningful and authentic ways, creates a powerful connection and a willingness to take risks. When an authority figure (whether teacher, administrator, or expedition leader) acknowledges you in this way, you know you are safe to be, safe to try, and safe to fail. You can truly throw yourself on board with the mission (of school or expedition), because you know that you will not be dismissed, devalued, or ignored. The effort to learn about and acknowledge the gifts of ourselves and each other knits communities of all types together.

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