Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 15 – You Will Return

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 15

You Will Return

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


Inevitably in our leadership journeys, we face setbacks. When we put our weight and our capital behind decisions or programs or choices and they – for whatever reason – do not pan out or proceed in the manner in which we expected, we can feel defeated and consider not returning to the particular field of battle in which we have just suffered defeat.

That is simply human nature.

In an arc of what is the most under-rated Star Trek incarnation of all Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the commander of the eponymous Deep Space Nine space station is forced to abandon the outpost, taking the Federation presence with him seemingly never to return. Defeated by the Cardassians, Captain Sisko leaves his office, his station and his post.

But he leaves his prize baseball behind for his successor to discover and to puzzle over.

The message is clear: I may be gone now, but I will be back.

This is a terrific message for leaders. We will fail. We will invest ourselves in situations that do not pan out. We will be defeated.

But we will be back.

If we will not, perhaps we were not great leaders in the first place

Teach & Serve III, No. 31 – Union. Now.

Teach & Serve III, No. 31 – Union. Now.

March 14, 2018

I welcome any chance to have dialogue among constituents at the school. I welcome every opportunity to discuss our shared work. I welcome all who wish to make the school a better place.

This is not a post suggesting that all faculties and staffs need to unionize, despite the title. However…

In my previous position as an administrator at a Catholic high school, periodically, talk of a faculty union would bubble up. The school I was at did not have a union, though many Catholic schools do, and discussion of it seemed to fall outside the norm of the typical way of proceeding. But, if one paid attention to when this talk surfaced, its genesis was most often tied to initiatives that were not well explained, decisions that felt capricious or moments following staff upheaval. That is to say, the talk of a union was usually motivated by some kind of challenging event in the life of the institution.

I will not suggest that I always greeted this talk with an open mind and heart, but I will not suggest that I did not. I do not actually recall, instance-by-instance, how I did respond when I was in formal leadership.

I can share how I would respond now (and I think this is how I responded back then as well).

I welcome any chance to have dialogue among constituents at the school. I welcome every opportunity to discuss our shared work. I welcome all who wish to make the school a better place.

Sometimes these conversations surface around challenging issues. So much the better. As educational leaders, we ought to seize on the moments in the lives of our schools that cause disruption. Further, if we are the cause or if something we have done ignites controversy, we should be able to discuss it, evaluate it, explain it (in as much as discretion and legitimate confidentiality allows).

When we, as educational leaders, hide from conversation about the difficult moments in the lives of our institutions, we are doing those institutions and the people who work in them a profound disservice. When we attempt to silence those who wish to engage us, we are on the way to destroying trust and rapport.

It is very hard to come back from those moments.

Do I believe all schools need some kind of faculty forum or faculty union? No, I do not. Do I fear them because of the very nature of their existence? No, I do not.

Organizations such as these can be very helpful in moving dialogue, in understanding institutional history, in providing avenues for more voices to be heard. Educational leaders who recognize and engage with organizations like this have a better chance to hear what they need to hear and lead how they need to lead. Educational leaders who fear and shut down these types of groups will, periodically, find themselves circling the wagons until the issue fades or the anger dies down or the confusion resolves.

Leaders only have so many times they can circle those wagons before they have outstayed their welcome.

Teach & Serve III, No. 30 – Leading from Fear

Teach & Serve III, No. 30 – Leading from Fear

March 7, 2018

When we find ourselves responding too frequently from a place of fear, perhaps our most effective window as leaders has closed.

There are good places from which to lead, good places of the heart and the soul.  I am a better leader when I am rested, when I am centered, when I am in touch with myself – with my weakness and my strengths. I can be a much more effective leader when leading from a place of good will and understanding.

Likewise, I am conscious of when I am a weak leader, when my judgment is  compromised and when I make poor decisions and choices.

Typically, I am a weaker leader when I am leading from fear.

Fear comes in many shapes and sizes in our institutions. We can be afraid of parents, afraid of students and staff, afraid of change, afraid of rocking the boat we have carefully tried to keep from sinking. Recognizing about what a leader should be afraid is not the same thing as leading from fear.

Leading from fear often restrains a leader and, ostensibly, an institution, from making bold choices and from innovating. Fear holds us back.

If we stop ourselves from making challenging decisions or from empowering others because of fears of whom we might offend or the impacts our decisions may have, we must consider the relative good. Is the offense outweighed by the positive results we anticipate resulting from the decision? If we are reluctant to lead because there are informal forces which will push back against us, we must ask a similar question. If we shy away from issuing clear statements or taking stands which we believe are important for our schools or our students out of concern for the reactions these statements or stands might draw, it is likely we have not considered them well enough in the first place. If they have been thoughtfully considered, and the students or school will benefit from them being made, good leaders move forward.

Yes, there are fears to which we should respond. Yes, there are times when what concerns us must inform how we proceed. Perhaps there are even times when our fears ought to stop us in our tracks.

But not always. When we find ourselves responding too frequently from a place of fear, perhaps our most effective window as leaders has closed.

A good leader recognizes fears, analyzes them and acts.

An excellent leader understands when fear is nothing to fear.

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

February 21, 2018

… how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate?

First, let us get this out of the way: our schools exist to serve our students. They – in a very real sense – are the bosses and they should be in charge. Not many of our organizational charts for our schools reflect that, however. Our org charts illustrate the adults who are “in charge.”

Okay. Fair enough.

When considering that, we can note that very few of us are actually the “Big Boss” or the “Head Cheese” or the “El Numero Uno Honcho” of our contexts. Schools are hierarchical systems. Typically, no matter our position as educational leaders, we answer to someone. Teachers answer to department chairs, department chairs to assistant principals, assistant principals to principals, principals answer to presidents, presidents to boards, and so on. This comes as little surprise to any of us working in schools.

It should also come as no surprise, then, that how we follow says very much about how we lead.

If we are good leaders, we expect that we will be followed. Whether we are consultative, collaborative or servant leaders – how ever we define our leadership – we anticipate that, if we are doing a good job as leaders, we will be followed. But even the best leadership cannot function in the real world without sometimes creating conflict or friction or unintended confusion. We know this. No process is perfect. No system is perfect. No leader is perfect. Not everything will go as we intended or planned.

If we are competent leaders leaning toward good leaders, we can navigate these waters and restore faith and trust. If we do a good job in that process, all will be well. Importantly, though, our followers must allow us to do a good job. The reservoir of faith and trust we have built up indicates much about how we will recover.

But so does our followership and here is the point: how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate? Do we presume their good will, listen to their explanations, give them the benefit of the doubt? Do we reflect on what has happened and consider our role in the issue? Do we seek to come to resolution, conclusion and positive outcomes? Or do we perseverate? Complain? Gossip? Vent?

As educational leaders, how we model followership may well be as important as how we lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

February 14, 2018

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and…

This week, I am in my second week in a row of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Today is also Valentine’s Day and, rather than focus on the commercialization of love (which might lead to a blog talking about the pitfalls of the commercialization of education – that would be a good one for a future date!), I want to write about love and education and how they ought to be integrally linked.

I have noted before what any teacher or administrator who has committed to our shared work already knows: what we do is very hard. Work in education is highly demanding. The hours are long. The pay is not always terrific. The rewards are not entirely tangible.

This is a tough job!

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and… well, I could go on.

Over my 25 years in education, I have learned a few things – stolen them, really – from the many, fine people with whom I have journeyed. One thing I have learned is the best among us are happy to be here. The best among us LOVE the work.

I love the work. Do you?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

February 7, 2018

What happens when we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

This week, I have the great pleasure of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Many (most?) of the blogs I have composed for Teach & Serve reflect on or reference conditions wherein good leadership is present in a school. They are written from a perspective assuming solid norms and procedures, relatively healthy environments and excellent standards for behavior.  

Let us be honest: those conditions do not always pertain.

Where does that leave individuals who wish optimal (or, at least, functional) leadership is in play? Where does that leave those who aspire to greater things for themselves and for their schools? Where does that leave people who seek perpetual improvement?

These are challenging questions, to be sure.

But there are answers.

Like the best answers, they start from within us. They start with us making honest and clear assessments of who we are in our leadership and of how we relate to the leaders and systems around us. The best answers ask us to ask ourselves hard questions.

And to answer them.

Good leaders know that one of the fundamental qualities of leadership is authenticity. I have written previously that I believe it to be the central and most important quality of a good leader. Good leaders, then, take the questions they are posing outward and turn them within.

If leadership is bad in our schools, we must ask ourselves if we are part of the issue. What role have we played to sour the milk? Have we contributed to an environment that is less than ideal? We must be willing to examine ourselves as a necessary first step.

And what happens, then, if we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

We must, then, assess what change we can make from where we are. We must consider who we can help and for what reason. If our challenge of authority and status quo and broken systems is for the good of our students (and the good of the adult community – a secondary good; students come first) then we are called to confront.

We must respectfully disagree and offer alternatives. We must exercise the authority we have as teachers and as educational leaders within the same structures our chairs and administrators occupy. We must speak truth – truth to colleagues, truth to power. We must do so offering suggestions and solutions, through-lines and conclusions and ways forward. We must be willing to suffer slings, arrows, criticisms and critiques.

When we are authentic, when we act from our true selves, all of this, though incredibly heavy to shoulder, is worth the weight.

If our systems hurt our students, if our leaders are negligent in their most important tasks, they must be examined and changed. They might even need to be set aside or torn down.

However, our seats in the school, our positions and our power along with the management and leadership styles of our superiors may make true and lasting collaboration and change so difficult as to be impossible.

This can be a bleak state of affairs and cause crises of the heart.

When leadership does not work and is unwilling to reflect and consider change, authentic leaders are in painful positions. If one has done all one can on behalf of students to confront challenges and bad actors, to affect change and to advance the institution and there is no way forward, another question comes into play: is my presence here so important for those I serve that I must stay?

If the answer is yes, it is good to remember that systems alter over time and leaders do not stay in place forever.

If the answer is no, it may well be time for an individual to change one’s circumstance. While that is easier written than done, it may be an inevitable conclusion and a legitimate alternative to continuing frustration and pain.

The best answers start from within. Knowing ourselves is a significant key.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 9 – Jedi Hubris

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 9

Jedi Hubris

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


I know more than I want to know about The Last Jedi. When you run in the circles in which I run, information about upcoming movies is hard to avoid. I have been in a media blackout for over a month on this film and I still know too much!

But there is one thing I know about the Jedi that I have known for a very long time. I have known this since I was a kid.

The Jedi are pompous jerks.

Seriously.

Think about it. They know all – or say they do. They claim to have access to special powers which you cannot access. They cut themselves off from personal attachments. They see the future but do not share their insights. They twist the truth to suit their needs (“what I told you was true from a certain point of view” anyone?).

And they kind of lord all this stuff over everyone with whom they interact.

Do you know any leaders like this?

Look, I like Luke and Mace and Obi Wan as much as the next geek but, come on!

The Jedi simply are not great leaders.

We learn more about leadership from them by not acting as they do.

In our leadership, a red light should flash when we feel as though we know all. We should hear warning sirens when we think we have access to things others do not and that is what makes us leaders. Likewise when we cut ourselves off from colleagues – from those we lead – we are headed down a bad road. And if we do not share all we know about what is coming in our institutions, we are more in love with the idea of leadership that we are with actually leading. Finally, when we twist the truth to influence those around us, we are on very thin ice from a prospective of effective leadership.

The Jedi are good. The Jedi are powerful. The Jedi helped save the galaxy a couple times.

But the Jedi are jerks. Hopefully we, as leaders, are not.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 6 – Leading from Your Gut

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 6

Leading from Your Gut

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


The recent reboot of Star Trek (not Star Trek Discovery, but the JJ Abrams produced films) has dived fans. Some embraced it, some disdained it. There were few fans in between.

Put me very much in the embraced it camp. I think it is a terrific update, built for modern sensibilities, that pays significant and appropriate attention to the source material. I think it is full of energy and fun.

And I love the cast, especially Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

Here is a Kirk who is learning, who is not fully formed, who is finding his way. How cool is that?

In the second (and most divisive) film in the trilogy, Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk is faced with the realization that he is not as well suited for his leadership role – his captaincy of the Enterprise – as he had believed. He is overcome by fear and doubt and he is confused about what to do next. And he does what most of us do in situations like this: he defaults to his strength.

His instincts.

Throughout his career, Kirk has trusted his instincts. He has relied on his gut feelings. He has banked on the fact that his sixth sense will not let him down.

At times in our leadership journeys, no matter our preference for facing challenges and making decisions, we will be forced stripped down, we will be in the moment, we will be forced to rely on instinct.

And that is okay. If we are good leaders, part of the reason why we are is that our guts and instincts have led us to be. Sometimes, we have to trust them. Sometimes, logic is not enough.

Sometimes, it’s a gut feeling.

And that is okay.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 5 – Know Your Team

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 5

Know Your Team

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


Mark Waid is a terrific comic book writer. Wickedly intelligent, possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, abundantly talented, Waid has written almost every main character for both DC and Marvel of which casual fans would know. He has written some amazing storylines and he has contributed to the myth of many characters.

One of those characters is Batman.

Waid wrote Justice League in the late 1990s and early 2000s and he penned some terrific stories. One of those stories, Tower of Babel, added to Batman’s reputation in an immeasurably– defining the character to this day. It made such a lasting impression, it was adapted into the DC Animated Movie Justice League: Doom.

In the story, a group of villains break into the Batcave computers and discover Batman has been creating plans to take down each-and-every member of the Justice League should that ever become necessary. The villains use these highly effective plans against the League and, though the team eventually succeeds in defeating them, the heroes look at Batman differently from that moment forward.

Art for the story was provided by the terrific Howard Porter.

Batman respects his teammates. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. He knows that they might, someday, need to be confronted and challenged. Is it incredibly cold hearted that he has devised plans – in advance – of how to deal with them if they go rouge? Of course it is, but he is Batman, after all.

The leadership lesson here is not to keep files of those you lead and know how to defeat them. You are not Batman, after all.

No, the lesson is to know those with whom you work. Know their strengths. Know their weaknesses. Know that, even if they are close colleagues – and *gasp* perhaps even friends – there may come a time when you have to confront them, challenge them, disagree with them.  There may come a time when knowing your colleagues weaknesses is an important part of your leadership and as important as knowing their strengths.

When you are a leader, developing the leadership of those around you is a critical part of the work. Knowing how to help those around you grow and overcome their weaknesses is a significant leadership tool. Additionally, knowing how not to put people into situations that will defeat them – situations that are beyond their abilities – is just as important.

Know your team. Know their capabilities. Know how to put them in the best positions to succeed.

And know you are not Batman!

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 2 – What’s So Funny about Truth and Justice?

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 2

What’s So Funny about Truth and Justice?

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


They say that Superman is a hard character to write. This is a common mantra among those who follow the Man of Steel. He’s too clean cut. He’s too powerful. He’s too good.

He’s boring, especially in the context of the “real world.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, anti-heroes were all the rage, heroes who did not force themselves to adhere to moral codes, heroes who would cross any line to serve their vision of justice. The X-Men, exemplified by their banner character Wolverine, were an example of this. The Authority was a team of almost omnipotent characters who were brutal and violent and just. Even the Avengers were recharacterized in this fashion in an alternate universe book called The Ultimates.

How does Superman fit into this world?

Not well.

But Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo presented a story in Action Comics #775 that underscored why Superman IS Superman.

In this landmark issue, Superman is confronted by a group of “heroes” calling themselves “The Elite.” These characters kill their adversaries, relish in their power and complain that Superman is hopelessly behind the times. They blame him for all the damage caused by villains the Man of Steel has left alive, villains who inevitably escape prisons and wreak havoc on the world. They say Superman is afraid to do what is necessary to protect the world.

Staging a televised showdown with the Elite, Superman appears to unleash violence as only he can, appearing to kill each member of the team (though he secretly saves each right before their “death” using his super speed) and terrifying both the Elite and the world, illustrating the evils of violence unchecked and power uncontrolled. As only Superman can, the hero reclaims the high ground, reaffirms his commitment to his moral code and has the world cheering for him in the process.

What’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way? Nothing.

Superman stands as an example of light not giving way to darkness. He refuses to cross lines and compromise his morality. He is upstanding. He is good.

We need more of this kind of good in our world.