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

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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.

A Tale of Enduring Leadership – Part 1

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“Men Wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” – Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton wrote the above text for an advertisement placed for his 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole on foot. Shackleton had clarity of mission and transparency in his communication because he was certain about what motivated him – as man and as leader. As a result, his advertisement for an uncomfortable, life-threatening, and arduous journey attracted people to his team who signed on neither for themselves (for they were promised nothing but discomfort and loss) nor for Shackleton (for they did not yet know him). They responded because they operated from the same core reasons for living – even, if not especially, in the face of formidable challenge. Much has been written on Ernest Shackleton and the lessons his 1914 voyage of the Endurance provides about leadership. As an educational leader in the 21st century, Shackleton’s clarity of mission and three qualities of his leadership have rooted themselves in me professionally and personally. They are presence, acknowledgement, and play.  The power and importance of them transcend time and space: they are enduringly relevant and necessary for leaders, faculty, families, and most important of all, the children we serve.

Cultivating an “Antifragile” Character

Children who are increasingly self-reliant, resilient, and empowered self-advocates who persevere through success and failure is, I believe, a hallmark of what they will need to be successful in their future in the 21st century. Our local and global communities are constantly changing, requiring growing flexibility as we live and move within them. Rapid advances in technology make information evermore accessible, with the increasing need to be discriminate in our absorption and use of it.

This article, reflecting on a book titled Antifragile, uses that term to describe a dynamic and responsive resilience that grows and changes over time. 

Antifragile or How We Become Fragile

As we think about the rate of change of the world around us, the words of the article ring truer than ever as they pertain to education:

“We still think we benefit from protecting people and organizations from volatility—from life. It’s a practice with unintended yet harmful side effects. A fact of life: “no stability without volatility.” A little confusion can lead to teachable moments, growth and stability.”

As teachers (and parents), we ought be less afraid of randomness in our lives and in the lives of our students. We ought to be less anxious about providing experiences and challenges for children that we cannot see the clear end result of. We ought to resist the reflex to be overprotective and overly scripted in our living and teaching.

Let’s strive, as adults, to be more antifragile ourselves so that our children can face the challenges awaiting them in their future with confidence in their skills to adapt, solve, collaborate, grow, innovate, and effect change for their communities around them.

See also: Wendy Mogul, author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee