Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man) and a Lesson for Leaders

"The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived."
So said Ralph Ellison and leaders should heed his point- we are a sum of our experiences and always remind ourselves of the very hard times just as we do the good times.

I frequently recall two painful leadership experiences. In almost a self-masichistic way, I try to relive my emotional distraught (chalk it up to my neurosis). Feeling the way I felt back then keeps me on the edge and reminds me that I am human, I make mistakes, I have come through these tough times, and I have to always learn from the experiences.

My first bad episode occurred when I was a middle school assistant principal. I suspended a student involved in a fight with another student in the school bathroom. The parent of one of the children claimed his kid was acting in self-defense. Unfortunately, he suffered several broken teeth in the process. The regional newspaper got hold of the father, showed up at a Board of Education meeting during which time the matter was discussed and printed an "expose" on the incident. The father called for my job (you can imagine what this did to the psyche of a 28-year old novice leader).

I made it through this event but spent a year hurting. My confidence dipped, and I became a bit "trigger-shy" when it came to disciplining students. As is the case with so many events in our lives, this one slowly but eventually made its way out of my emotional system. My confidence bounced back, but I still harbor the feelings. Fifteen years later I can feel what I felt back then when everything was unfolding.

The second painful experience I often relive occurred when I was a high school principal. Being a high school principal was for me the most challenging position I ever held. I took over for the founding principal of a very high performing school. He "walked on water." I walked in his footprints (very big footprints at that). I struggled to maintain my leadership identity but made too many accommodations to others thinking I had to behave the way my predecessor behaved. I came away from this experience learning that I had to follow the cliche mantra professionals hear so often- "be you!" I keep learning about this episode because I keep reliving my time at this special school.

Ellison (of Invisible Man fame) speaks volumes when he points out that we must never forget the "chaotic" past from which we evolve.

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