I've been thinking about fearless leadership in education. In recent months, I've observed problems that would take a great amount of courage to solve. Is fearlessness a prerequisite to leadership?
I am a fearful person. I'm afraid that I am not a good leader. I'm afraid that the things I am doing will not be enough to make change. I'm afraid that the problems we are trying to solve are just too huge, too intractable. I'm afraid that I left my hair straightener on. This fear motivates me to be better, but it is also my enemy.
In my investigation of fearless leadership I was surprised that the most common result of the search is the character Fearless Leader from Rocky & Bullwinkle, one of my mom's favorite shows. I loved it too- I went down memory lane on Youtube to learn more about Fearless Leader! The villain has the traits of what I would consider to be a fearful leader, one who relies only on power of position for authority. Fearless Leader is watching Rocky and Bullwinkle from a satellite from a "sinister room" in Pottsylvania. He rules by yelling and scaring his subordinates, like Boris Badenov. A show famous for "Fractured Fairy Tales", and witty dry humor, the Fearless Leader character is an ironic portrayal of poor leadership.
I've studied leadership, I read about it frequently and listen to audiobooks. This is my disclaimer that basically- I know nothing. But here are some of the patterns I've found.
1) Leaders who rule by creating fear are not fearless.
I've observed people who are in leadership positions that they are not prepared for, and where they are not supported. The strategy for these leaders becomes a "my way or the highway" attitude, or "because I said so" when questioned. Or they try to create an environment in which employees do not have a voice, where they are fearful to question. These leaders are full of fear, and are not leaders, because their followers are only followers because of the position they hold and not because they believe in the person they are following.
2) Fearless leaders admit when they are wrong.
Fearless leaders have a strong understanding of what they know and what they don't know. Leaders who pretend to know everything are dangerous. In most organizations, it would be extremely challenging to be an expert in all subjects. Education is highly specialized and many teachers and administrators have a narrow span of expertise. None of us know everything there is to know- the best way to learn more is to change your setting and challenge yourself. Even then, there will be so much to learn. If a fearless leader makes a mistake, they admit it and they apologize. And they move on.
3) Fearless leaders don't make excuses.
They understand that excuse making is a big waste of time. They don't do it, and they don't tolerate it from their employees. We're in education. Our work is dependent on societal factors such as parenting, socio-economics, state and local policies, local school boards, the State Department, etc. etc. For everything you could be doing to help kids, there's some excuse out there why you can't. At the same time, almost always you could find someone who is doing the work, despite those factors, and doing it well. No more excuses.
4) Fearless education leaders do what's best for the student. Always.
Fearless leaders in education do what's best for the student, not what's best for the adults. What's best for the adults is almost always easiest. What's best for adults is met with the least opposition and will get adults the time/money/resources what they need. But is it really what's best for the students? The best education leaders put the students first, 100% of the time. If this means that an adult or a group of adults is getting in the way of that mission- it means fearlessly standing up to them and not tolerating that behavior. Far too often, education leaders choose the path of least resistance.
We need more fearless leaders in education, and we need to be developing teachers and leaders to be bold and unafraid. Fear keeps teachers from trying new things. Fear makes teachers feel that they don't have a voice, or that their students and parents don't have a voice. Fear creates stress, anxiety, and depression. Fear removes the joy from teaching. Fear has no business in our schools. The fearless leader can create a culture of love instead of fear. This is who we need leading our schools and school systems.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.