Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 17 – 1000 Reasons

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 17

1000 Reasons

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


In the last installment of Superheroic Leadership, I wrote about Superman and the classic story “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Perhaps I should have waited to write about the Man of Steel for this week’s Superheroic Leadership.

Seven days from tomorrow, something fairly extraordinary will happen: DC Comics will publish the 1000th issue of Action Comics. Not many comic books (or other periodicals for that matter) reach 1000 issues. Not many superheroes have been featured in 1000 issues of the same comic (though, to be fair, Superman didn’t appear in every issue of Action Comics, but he did in the overwhelming majority of them – like 900 issues or more). Reaching 1000 issues is something of an achievement.

As a self-proclaimed expert in the American artform of comic books, I have much to say about this. I could probably go on for 1000 reasons on Superman, the reason he is the most important character in comic books and, perhaps (don’t get me started!) the most influential character in all of American literature. He must be in the top ten on any serious list.

How many other characters have been in continuous publication for over 80 years?

Think about that. I’ll wait for you.

You got it. The answer is none. A goose egg. Only Superman can claim that mantle and it must mean something, right?

For the purposes of this post, let us start and end with this lesson that Superman teaches time-and-again: one must persevere.

Perhaps Superman’s dedication to the “never ending battle” is best understood as a reflection on the dogged effort of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, his creators. Siegel and Shuster, the sons of immigrants, worked tirelessly on Superman, hoping to make some money by selling him as a daily newspaper strip. Following mountains of rejections, they, reluctantly, turned their brain-child into a comic book. Once Superman sold (his first appearance was Action Comics #1), they would see some of their dreams come true though they would never realize the riches that were, likely due them.

What their story can tell us, though, and what the overwhelming majority of the subsequent Superman stories tells us is that we should never give up, never give in, never give way when the stakes are high.

It this a simple message?

Yes.

Is Superman a simple character?

Yes.

Perhaps the elegant and inspiring simplicity is why he has been around so long.

One could do much worse …

Teach & Serve III, No. 35 – The Library

Teach & Serve III, No. 35 – The Library

April 11, 2018

This week is National Library Week and provides an excellent occasion to revisit a past blog… Our libraries may need to adapt and change. But let us be a bit careful.

Batman made me read.

This is likely a true statement. I use the word “likely” because who really remembers exactly the moment they turned on to reading. How really recalls the day and time that reading became as important as anything else in life?

I don’t recall the exact second on which my life turned – that second I decided I would be a reader – by I know Batman was the reason.

I was in first grade. I could already read – pretty well, in fact. This was the late 1970s and teachers were still dividing kids into ability groups. I was in the Dinosaurs with other good readers – amazing what we remember, is it not? I was not in the Lions. They could not read as well as we Dinosaurs could. I got it.

I could read and I liked it. But I did not love it.

I did not fall in love with reading until the day that I ran headlong into the corner of a brick wall. On the way home from the hospital following 6 stiches, my father bought for me two comic books: Batman Family and Superman Family.

I fell in love with comics on the spot and I fell in love with superheroes. I could not get enough of them.

While comic books were relatively cheap, my parents (wisely knowing the collecting hoarder I might one day become) did not always indulge my desire to buy them. Rather, we would hop in the car on many a weekend and head to the Arvada Public Library. There, as I recall, I could check out 3 items a week – whatever I wanted.

That what I wanted were more stories of superheroes was fine by my folks. I checked out comic books (which you could do back then… can you do it now?). I checked out books and records featuring stories of DC and Marvel superheroes. I checked out Little Big Books starring… wait for it… superheroes. The library fed my growing desire for comic book characters all the while powering my growing ability to read and comprehend.

I am not alone in owing libraries for this. Generation after generation learned to love language in just this fashion.

Libraries find themselves (as they ever have, by-the-way) at something of a crossroads, especially the ones in our schools. There is pressure to move them into the 21st Century (whatever that means), to make them media centers, iPad labs, moveable spaces, makers spaces and, alarmingly, to remove all books.

There are good reasons to pursue this line of thought and there are space pressures in our buildings. Our libraries may need to adapt and change. But let us be a bit careful.

I love me my iPad. I read most books and comics on it now. It is convenient to be sure, but, I have to ask, are kids falling in love with reading using their computers, phones and iPads? Is the same connection to the word developed when reading on a tablet?

Professor Andrew Dillon has done some work on the subject. He’s concerned about the tactile differences and how we are being conditioned. Professor Anne Mangen worries about the recall ability of those using e-readers rather than books. There are concerns.

My concern is much simpler: will people develop a love of reading without the physicality of the activity and without its accompanying shrines?

I am so proud of my sister. She has been a children’s librarian for almost 20 years. I’ve seen what she does for kids: she inspires them to read. Through crafts and displays and public readings and activities, she seduces kids to the word. She brings them into the library. She is part of a long tradition of educators who inspire.

We must be careful when we talk about modernizing our libraries. We must pay attention to what’s come before those thoughts. We must realize the stakes and they are high. Let us have high tech rooms, makers spaces, robotics labs and technology dens.

But, for education’s sake, let us also pay attention to libraries. Let us also have books. Let us find places for them in our buildings and in our lives even if they are no longer only housed in the space we previously called “The Library.”

Batman made me read. Libraries fed my habit. I am an educator now who reveres the word.

Is there a through line?

You better believe there is.

Teach & Serve III, No. 33 – Move the Chairs

Teach & Serve III, No. 33 – Move the Chairs

March 28, 2018

I believe that if we, as leaders, are unwilling to move the chairs, if we somehow think the task beneath us or that we are more important than the work, then we are not effective leaders. I believe we are not even that good.

In a position I held a few years ago, I was walking outside across the quad of the school on my way from one building to another. On the grass, the maintenance staff was setting up for an all-school, outdoor event which was to occur within the next couple hours. The closer I got to the group setting up, the more I could sense something was wrong. The tension was noticeable.

I pulled aside the young man who was in charge of the set up just to see what was wrong.

“We set some of this up last night and it’s all wet.” He said.

He was forlorn.

I looked and, sure enough, the seats of the folding chairs had puddles of water on them and the grass below them was drenched.

Clearly, the staff had forgotten to shut off the sprinkler system.

“Okay,” I said, “what’s the plan?”

The staff had begun moving the chairs to a different part of the quad – a dry part – and had also started wiping the chairs down.

I pitched in.

They needed the help. The president of the school was very conscious of appearances. This event would have parents and board members at it and the maintenance staff – particularly the young man in charge – were more than a bit intimidated by him. I was only the principal. Not so intimidating.

We worked for about forty-five minutes and got the chairs re-arranged. I cannot guarantee that everyone had dry backsides when they sat in them, but they were out of the swamp of the wet grass and ready to go before the students, staff, parents and dignitaries hit the field.

All’s well that ends well.

“I can’t believe you did that,” the young man told me as the event started.

“It was no big deal,” I said. And it was not.

Growing up, I had watched my mother and father set up and take down many an event, those that they were speakers at or a part of and those that they were not. It was just what one did to help things come off correctly and well. That day in the wet grass, it never occurred to me to do anything but help.

I believe that if we, as leaders, are unwilling to move the chairs, if we somehow think the task beneath us or that we are more important than the work, then we are not effective leaders. I believe we are not even that good.

If you disagree, we have very different definitions of leadership.

Move the chairs, my friends.  Move the chairs.

Teach & Serve III, No. 32 – Settle In; Don’t Settle For

Teach & Serve III, No. 32 – Settle In; Don’t Settle For

March 21, 2018

One of the best parts of this work is the cyclic nature of it. We simply must guard against giving in to the troughs in that cycle. We must remember the peaks are coming.

We must never settle for.

I have found it most difficult to explain to my friends and family who work in fields other than education what the months of February, March and April can feel like in the school setting. There is a certain malaise that I have found creeps in, a feeling wrought of early mornings in darkness followed by late evenings in darkness. A concern – unrealistic and unfounded – that the school year will never end, that we are locked in a Groundhog Day of educational proportions that will never let us go.

Rationally, we know this is untrue, but there is something about these late winter, early spring weeks that make us believe it might – just might – be.

The temptation in these months is to settle for. To settle for less than the best effort our students can give us. To settle for less than what we expect from our staffs and colleagues in terms professionalism and conduct. To settle for less than what we know we of ourselves to be capable.

We can make excuses. We can find reasons – often good and legitimate ones – for our failings and for failings of those around us. We can allow ourselves to settle for.

This is not the time to settle for but it may be the time to settle in.

Recognizing that there are segments of the year, pages on the calendar that are more promising or less promising for innovation and creativity, understanding that sometimes it is all right to look ahead and conclude that moving forward in the direction we are already heading without massive course correction is more than acceptable, settling in is an excellent decision.

The energy will return as the end of the year approaches. It ever does. The promise of summer and renewal and breaks will fire the spirit and rekindle the enthusiasm. Teachers will look ahead to the promise of what is to come and students to the next steps in their lives and everything that was old will seem new again.

The key is to never settle for, but to know when to settle in, to ride out the ebb in energy, to await the coming of renewal.

One of the best parts of this work is the cyclic nature of it. We simply must guard against giving in to the troughs in that cycle. We must remember the peaks are coming.

We must never settle for.

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.