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January 20, 2017

I Will Not Write an Elegy

Fostering Community

Today of all days, Inauguration Day for the 45th President of the United States, seems like an apt time to reflect on leadership. For some, it may feel more like an apt time to write an elegy for leadership. I admit to experiencing dismay today, but I will not concede defeat and don’t believe that all hope is lost. I have decided that I will respond to messages from Trump’s bully pulpit with unfailing opposition because it’s part of my job as Head of School. It’s not the politics I’ll respond to. That’s not my job. It’s the disrespect, the pettiness, the cruelty, the lies (or “post-truth” assertions as they are now known) – that’s what I am bound to fight against because, if I don’t, then I have no right to ask my students to stand up to bullies. If I don’t model what it means to speak up in support of human decency, honesty, equality, compassion – oh, the list goes on and on – then I am not serving our girls well.

For the past few weeks, we’ve seen the political pundits battle back and forth on cable news networks and in columns of print, launching verbal assaults on trade, immigration, and Hilary Clinton’s emails. Oh, and Russia. We can’t forget Russia. What seems to be missing (or at least grossly waning) is meaningful, non-partisan debate about Trump’s character. There’s certainly enough fodder to keep that conversation going for days, but apart from a bemused, “Oh, look what he’s Tweeted now”, it’s as if any serious examination about Trump’s character has run its course (or run into a brick wall of unfathomable hubris). The determined and honourable men and women who publicly stand up to him are attacked as disgruntled whiners or sore losers. His supporters dismissively say, “Oh, sure he’s a little bit [insert shocking adjective here] but that’s not what’s really important!” and then move on to decry media bias or put forward some other distracting argument to muddy the waters. We’ve seen so many red herrings thrown about these past few weeks, I’m surprised newsrooms don’t reek of fish.

This normalization of bad behaviour is of great concern to me. It should be of great concern to every school leader. In fact, it should be of great concern to everyone. The omnipresence of Trump and his antics in our public space demands that schools consciously and deliberately recalibrate our students’ understanding of leadership. We need to pull back any subtle moral slippage caused by the enormity of Trump’s assault on traditional leadership values and accepted norms. It’s incumbent upon school leaders to state unequivocally and forcefully the behaviour we expect from our students. And I think it’s okay to state that we expect the same from our Canadian public figures as well.

Our school began a review of student leadership positions this year. We just finished reviewing the roles of Prefect and Head Girl – arguably the highest formal leadership roles in our school.  We are preparing to share a revised Prefect selection process with our community that will very clearly articulate the qualities expected in students who apply for these positions. I won’t get into all the details, but I will summarize a few key points.

What do we expect of our most senior student leaders? We expect them to demonstrate respect for self, respect for others, and respect for the community. We want them to have integrity, courage, compassion, and resilience.  And in all they do, we ask them to be inclusive, responsible, self-directed, mindful, positive, collaborative, reflective, and open to feedback.  It goes without saying that Trump would never earn the right to be a Prefect at our school.

What a strange notion. The newly installed President of the United States, now one of the most powerful people in the world, does not possess the qualities and temperament to be a leader in our school. How do we possibly explain such utter madness to students? How can we help them make sense of the raging dissonance between the dignity of America’s highest elected office and the character of the individual currently inhabiting it?

Those who know me well know that I’m a “glass is half full” type of person. So ever the optimist, I’ve decided to see Trump as a gift. Yes, that’s right, a gift. A fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime gift of a teachable moment. Through his crudeness, his dishonesty, his lack of self-control, and his inability to take feedback, Trump demonstrates for our students a very important fact: not all leaders are people of good character. Let’s think about that for a moment and turn it into a broader lesson for students.

In schools, we talk about leadership not just being about formal titles or roles. We describe authentic leadership as a way of being – a way of supporting, guiding, and inspiring others. We tell our students that each and every one of them has the ability to lead, even if they’re not a Prefect or on Student Council. Trump’s inauguration demonstrates with exceptional clarity that the position or the title is not what’s important. It’s the integrity of the person that matters. Trump reminds us that not all leaders are people of good character; but all people of good character are leaders.

So I will not write an elegy for leadership today. Instead, let this be an ode to integrity – an homage to the type of leadership that may be devoid of elected role or lacking in formal title but that nonetheless stands out for its integrity and its authenticity. At a time when bad behaviour is being normalized, I believe school leaders should talk openly with students about what’s going on. Let’s be clear that we cannot, and will not, condone the actions of the person inhabiting the office of President, not because of our personal politics but because of what we stand for in our schools. Let’s teach our students that true leadership brings comfort to others, lends a hand to those in need, helps to raise entire communities, and inspires others to do the same. If we ask our students to aspire to this type of leadership, then I suspect the next four years may be a kinder and gentler time for all.

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