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.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 14 – X Marks the Spot

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 14

X Marks the Spot

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


When they were first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men were intended to do one thing: sell comic books. Lee had something of a knack for uncovering trends in teenage interest and he and Kirby set to work creating a book that might appeal. They threw together four teenage outsiders, each feeling that they were alone in the world, each possessed of a power they could not control or understand and put them under the tutelage of wheelchair bound Professor Xavier, a mutant himself – just like his students.

The key was, these people had powers that were inborn, powers they may or may not have wanted, powers that made them different though they looked like everyone else.

While this was relatively ground-breaking stuff, what really set X-Men apart, almost right away, was the meta-textual resonance the series had.

X-Men premiered in 1963 to a country that was gripped by the civil rights struggle. In this issue, Professor Xavier preached that mutant kind – himself, his students and others like them – must peacefully co-exist with the rest of the world and that by showing the rest of the world that there was nothing to fear from them – from those who were different, they would win the world to their side. Introduced in that issue as well was Magneto, another mutant. His philosophies were more combative than those of Xavier. He believed that the only way mutants would be accepted is if they forced their acceptance on a world that feared and hated them.

In the time of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcom X, these philosophies sounded very familiar, indeed.

In later years (and, famously, in the movie X-Men 2), the plight of mutants, who looked just like everyone else but were different in some fundamental fashion and in a manner not of their choosing or control, was sometimes employed as a symbol for homosexuality. In X-Men 2, Ice Man Bobby Drake decides to tell his parents he is a mutant and the believe he is coming out to them. It is a poignant moment.

X-Men was not an immediate hit but has ever had cultural resonance and relevance.

Comics aren’t just for kids. Pass it on…

Teach & Serve III, No. 29 – The Dream Business

Teach & Serve III, No. 29 – The Dream Business

February 28, 2018

The Dream Business. That is an exciting business in which to work. That is an exciting vocation to have. And enabling dreamers around us is part of what we do.

Dreams.

It is about dreams I wish to ruminate for a few paragraphs because dreams are so critically important to the work we share as teachers and educational leaders. Dreams are the blood that should run through the veins of our schools. They should be the air our students breathe. Dreams ought to be what sustains us as we look to February and the long March toward summer.

In our schools, we as adults are surrounded by people who dream. Our students dream of their future and what they will become. They dream of who they will play with on the playground or ask to prom. They dream of their role on the volleyball team or in the next play. They dream about getting out of the class through which they are suffering.

They dream.

Part of our role as teachers is to enable them to dream, to stretch their imaginations about themselves, to exceed, first in their minds and then in reality, the obstacles they believe they cannot overcome. Part of our role as administrators is to enable our faculty and staff to do the same thing: to dream of who they want to be for their students and department and school.

We are in the dream business in education.

Yes, I know. There are practical pieces to what we do, practical things we must help our students and staffs accomplish, practicalities that are practical and must be practically done.

I understand.

But when we allow ourselves and our systems to be overcome by the practical, we neglect the impractical. When we only focus on the possible, we forget the impossible. When we hone in on what must be done, we lose sight of what can be done.

The Dream Business. That is an exciting business in which to work. That is an exciting vocation to have. And enabling dreamers around us is part of what we do.

And we need to dream, too, dream about what might be, not only for our students, but for ourselves.

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. 12 – The Roots of Steel

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 12

The Roots of Steel

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


Superman is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. I did a little research (on the internet, so it has to be true!) of the most recognizable symbols in the world and the Superman “S” was in the top five on each list I reviewed.

There is some kind of power in that, in the fact that people see that “S” and know it stands for Superman.

And what does Superman stand for?

Truth? Justice? The American way?

Superman was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, OH in the 1930s. Children of the Depression, sons of European immigrants and one the child of a man killed in a store robbery, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could not conceive how their creation would change the world. That was too big from them to think about.

Rather, in Superman’s earliest adventures, they thought about what a character driven by justice would take on. What type of evil should their Superman confront?

Within the first years of his adventures, Superman battled men who abused women, white supremacists, immoral politicians and corrupt businessmen.

Not a so-called “supervillain” among these criminals.

Within those same first years of his adventures, it was established that Superman came from another world and was adopted and raised in America’s heartland.

He was not shipped back to outer space because of his lack of proper papers.

There was a controversy a few years back when Superman declared himself a citizen of the world, not simply of the United States, when he said he would fight for those in need across the globe.

I did not understand the significance of the moment.

I bet all those who have never held a comic book, who have never seen a Superman movie, who cannot read English would have understood that moment’s significance. They understand the “S” to mean something special, something heroic, something great.

It represents the story of the ultimate immigrant fighting for justice.

For me, it will always stand for hope.

I am not sure why all this came to me this week… perhaps I need a little of what Superman has offered.

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

January 31, 2018

If you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

Today is my younger sister’s birthday. In the past, I have called her my “little sister” but, as we are both *ahem* over forty, that seems a bit ridiculous now. I wish her the happiest of birthdays and a wonderful year ahead. I wish that all her dreams come true.

My sister is a child librarian and has been one for over twenty years. I have written about her and libraries in a previous Teach & Serve. She is a model for me about commitment and vocation and service. And she is thinking about altering her service from the library setting to the school setting.

She will be terrific and this is a natural progression for her.

My sister and me long before either of us were… forty.

As I was thinking about her and her potential change in career, I began to consider the other teachers in our family.

My mother’s mother was an elementary school teacher for years. One of my earliest memories about schools is being with Grandma in her classroom putting up decorations in the fall. What a lovely memory to have. One of my uncles was a math professor and dean of his department at a major university for decades. His daughter, one of my cousins is a professor at a major university teaching … math. One of my aunts was an English professor and dean of her department at a community college for years. Her daughter, one of my cousins, has directed preschools for years. One of my brothers-in-law taught for almost five years. My wife has been a teacher for almost twenty years. One of my sons is applying to graduate schools in education to become a teacher.

I taught English for over twenty years and am headed back this fall back towards teaching and into direct school leadership.

Other members of the family do critical work in other fields – for the church, for their communities, for the public health – are engineers and business leaders and are studying to be lawyers and nurses and so many more valuable things. I honor each and every one of them.

But, if you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

I cannot wait to fully welcome my little… er… younger sister to it.