Courage for School Leaders

A common requirement of leaders at all levels is having the courage to make tough decisions and take difficult actions.  – David Cottrell and Eric Harvey.

I first came across Amelia Earhart’s poem Courage, in Leading from Within; Poetry That Sustains the Courage To Lead. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, Editors.

Courage – Poem by Amelia Earhart

Courage is the price that Life exacts
for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not
Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter
joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living,
compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant
hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we
make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless
day,
And count it fair.

There is no doubt that effective leadership requires courage.  Principals and other school leaders create the learning environment and school culture by their daily actions or inaction.  They must demonstrate courage daily or they will become ineffective and this ineffectiveness will lead to low standards of performance and lack of commitment throughout the school.  Teachers and students will be affected.  School leaders must keep everyone accountable and focused on the task.

School leaders should do everything possible, within reason, to develop good relationships with members of staff, and they must also embody the mission, vision, and values of the school.  They must create policy to uphold those three guiding lights and implement necessary change with courage and self-confidence.

When leaders make tough decisions that some persons do not like, they must be willing to accept the risks and challenges that ensue, and still press on with their decisions.  They have to do what is best for the students and the school.  The first priority is to improve teaching and learning.  School leaders must, therefore, have the courage to make unpopular decisions.

Sometimes it is necessary to suspend or expel the children of close friends, neighbours, or influential persons in the society.  At times you cannot reassign a temporary teacher because of the teacher’s poor performance despite efforts to help him or her to improve.  It is sometimes necessary to confront delinquent or difficult teachers, sometimes even Senior or experienced teachers.  This confrontation and conflict is necessary, in the best interests of the students and school, since problems do not go away if you ignore them; they become worse.

In many cases school leaders, mainly principals, must have the courage to stand up to uncooperative and irate parents, members of the School Board, and even occasional policy dictates from the Ministry of Education that seem more political than educational or just plain impractical in your particular school environment.

School leaders also have to control difficult or emotionally disturbed students who may be inclined to violent behaviour.  Leaders have to make decisions and defend them at all costs since they are responsible for the safety of everyone at the school.  They must also deal fearlessly and sensibly with unauthorized intruders on the school premises.

These actions by school leaders often cause tension and negative changes in the relationships between the leaders and those reprimanded or sanctioned.  However, provided that the leader is acting fairly, consistently and in accordance with accepted practice and the stated mission, vision, policy, and the values of the school, most of the persons involved will respect the decisions taken.  The key is that these decisions must be made in the best interests of the students and the school.  School leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions even in the face of internal institutional political factionalism among sections of the staff.  One cannot please everyone all the time.

Many successful leaders have said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to take the right action despite any fear one may feel.  Some school leaders fail, not because they do not know what to do, but because they do not have the courage to do it.  I want to remind readers at this point that school leaders must develop positive relationships with their staff and students, and involve them in decision-making whenever this is possible or feasible. This will assist in building the trust that will allow staff and students to accept the tough decisions that school leaders will make from time to time.  School leadership is not a profession for the faint-hearted and leaders cannot be afraid to reprimand their friends or colleagues when it is necessary to do so.  Similarly, they cannot allow themselves to be intimidated by the possibility or reality of adversarial encounters with lawyers or trade unions in the legitimate execution of their duties as school leaders.