Teachers, Leaders

Nadia Boulanger 1925

“May I have the power to exchange my best with your best.” —Nadia Boulanger

I have been mulling over this great and greatly insightful post for a couple of days. What follows is a slightly modified version of my comment there. Please go read it and share your own thoughts however and wherever you like.

I have many tangled responses that are a little painful to contemplate, so I’ll just leave this marker here for now: I think part of the subject here is leadership. I have had many spirited disagreements with a leader named Jim Groom about the role, necessity, and ethics of leadership. For me, a teacher is also a kind of leader. Ivan Illich, no fan of schooling or authoritarian structures of any kind, writes movingly about the role of the true, deep teacher. So does George Steiner, using language of “master” and “disciple” that would make many open-web folks cringe–or worse. Yet even the great and greatly democratic poet Walt Whitman salutes his “eleves” at one point. And I have experienced and been very grateful for the wisdom of those teacher-leaders who brought me into a fuller experience and understanding of my own responsibilities as a leader. What is “self-directed learning” if not an act of leadership?

One of the books that’s affected me most profoundly this year is Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. In it, I find this wisdom:

And every day you must decide whether to put your contribution out there, or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone, and get through another day. You are right to be cautious. Prudence is a virtue. You disturb people when you take unpopular initiatives in your community, put provocative new ideas on the table in your organization, question the gap between colleagues’ values and behavior, or ask friends and relatives to face up to tough realities. You risk people’s ire and make yourself vulnerable. Exercising leadership can get you into a lot of trouble. To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking—with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. Moreover, leadership often means exceeding the authority you are given to tackle the challenge at hand. People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game: pushed aside, undermined, or eliminated. It is no wonder that when the myriad opportunities to exercise leadership call, you often hesitate. Anyone who has stepped out on the line, leading part or all of an organization, a community, or a family, knows the personal and professional vulnerabilities. However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business.

Perhaps everyone is called to some form of leadership as an ethical imperative. Perhaps for everyone, a moment or occasion of leadership will emerge, reveal itself, and call to us with the painful, necessary task of speaking up, patiently asking for alternatives, insistently rocking the boat … and lovingly organizing the celebrations and rites of passage. Not to mention keeping the tribe alert to the value and splendor of newcomers, and to the persistent value of encountering other tribes to work together in building the commons.

I think that leadership may be mostly a commitment to the constant mediation and care required by love, that place where both individuality and relationship must assert themselves and somehow walk and dance together.


4 thoughts on “Teachers, Leaders

  1. Wow, Gardner, I am glad I happened to notice this post just now. I have read it and will be back to read it again. That quote is pretty amazing. I will confess that I usually tune out “leadership” as a term because what it has always meant to me is organizational leadership, the person in whom institutional authority is vested in, with “boss” and “leader” being more or less synonymous in my world, and not in the happy part of my lexicon. Blame it on Dilbert. Blame it on how universities work (or don’t work) way too much of the time. But, according to what you have written here, the official university leaders may not even the real leaders at all: put provocative new ideas on the table? face up to tough realities? make themselves vulnerable? disturbing institutional equilibrium? Uh, not in my universe/university. So, you have definitely given me something to ponder on today. Thank you!

    And, made curious by your Latin tagline here, I visited your bio: so glad I did. MILTON. Oh my! I am very glad we have connected up thanks to the CCourses experience. The whole reason I learned Latin was to read Polish Renaissance Latin poetry. I’m guessing Milton might even have known and read some of my Polish Latin poets in fact. 🙂

  2. Gardner, I would argue that teachers are not “a kind of leader”, they “are” leaders. After all, they/we “lead” our students to knowledge. Granted, we can’t force them to drink from that particular fount, but every one of us who “chooses” to teach, chooses to “lead”. And yet, leadership cannot exist without followership. It is a dance indeed, between teachers and students, between individuality (theirs and ours), and relationships. And teachers, of all the leaders out there – dance to the music of love.

  3. The paragraph from the book describes the challenges of all leaders and applies to business, non-profit, community and higher ed leadership. The description is “spot on”.

    With the changes that are coming at society from the advancement of technology, we will be forced to change, each and every one of us. Leading through the impact of advancing technology, AI, automation and the like will be critical to not only success, but individual sanity in some communities.

    thanks for blogging


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