How do you handle the call to lead?

As it turns out, I may have handled the call 38 years ago much better than I do today.

As a fifth grader in 1976, I shared a love for playing jacks with my girlfriends. Each day at recess my friends and I would play jacks outside. The problem: our play area was a hot, humid, pebble-covered hillside.

But together, we thought of a solution. We could play inside our classroom on the perfectly level hardwood floors. We’d hold an indoor jacks tournament just for girls while the boys ran and sweated outside (we had no air conditioning in our central Alabama school, but that didn’t matter).

That led to the next problem: who would talk to the teacher? Now, I want to point out something here. The student-teacher relationship in 1976 had not yet evolved into the open exchange with children that I often see today. For my friends and me, approaching the teacher for a request like this was akin to going off to see the wizard. A very scary wizard.

Someone in the group asked, “Who should talk to Ms. Perry?” I will never forget what happened next. The entire group looked at me and said, “Jennifer. She should go. She’s the one.” One look at their desperate faces and I knew that they were right. It had to be me. I simply replied, “OK.” And that was the moment my life changed forever.

I decided to draft a proposal that addressed all the potential problems Ms. Perry would have with our plan. For example, every day two classes went to recess together. I proposed that one teacher take the boys outside while the other stay inside with the girls.

Then I created a bracket for all the girls who wanted to play in the jacks tournament. I even added some academic appeal to the proposal by promising that every girl would calculate her own probability of winning the tournament (something we’d been studying in math). Finally, I made sure the teacher knew that we’d supply all the jacks and the balls.

Ms. Perry said yes. A few days later we held the most magnificent jacks tournament of all time. (At least we thought it was!) Though I was put out of competition in the first round, I won something more precious than trophies or ribbons that day. I earned the mantle of leadership – a prize I didn’t seek but one I found when willing to be faithful to the cause.

But even if Ms. Perry had said no, I think that day would still have set me on a lifelong path of leadership. That fateful day, I was chosen to be a leader. It was my duty to listen to my friends, craft a message that represented our wishes, and deliver the message convincingly and succinctly. Granted, I had no control over the outcome. But I had total control over the decision to serve my friends.

Leading begins with a very deliberate decision to serve others. It comes from a place of empathy and draws on the deep connection we have to the people we serve. I felt it when I approached my “Wizard of Oz.” And like the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion who went off to see their wizard, I know so many others who lead with amazing heart, brainpower, and courage. Our CTQ Collaboratory is filled with examples of amazing servant leadership.

  • Cheryl Suliteanu’s great heart has driven her to work tirelessly toward a vision for school as a community center. This fifth grade Oceanside, CA teacher’s dedication to her dream started long before winning the Goldman Sachs “Innovation is U.S. Education” essay contest, but continues today as she shifts into high gear working with parents to bridge gaps between school and community. Leadership requires a servant’s heart.
  • Marsha Ratzel, Jose Vilson, Larry Ferlazzo, Cindi Rigsbee, Bill FerriterRoxanna Elden, and Ariel Sacks put their brainpower to use for the good of educators everywhere. These wise and experienced CTQ Collaboratory members have published books on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes I take for granted the process that produces the inspiration I depend on so often in my career. Writing a book is no simple task. Thought leadership requires enormous brainpower.
  • Wendi Pillars spoke up. This expert teacher in a rural high-poverty North Carolina school spoke up about school policies she believed were not in the best interest of her students. First published on The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet blog, the letter she wrote to her third graders demonstrates Wendi’s intense compassion for students and commitment to serving their needs. Leadership requires relentless courage.

But unlike the yellow brick road, the leadership journey is not about a destination. Oz didn’t really give the tin man a heart, the scarecrow a brain, or the lion courage. The potential already existed within each of them. But the journey was necessary in order for them to practice using the qualities they already possessed.

Can one be considered caring and kind if no caring or kind actions are ever taken? Am I courageous if I never do something truly scary? Are you wise if you don’t apply your brainpower to solve a problem or address a challenge? In the same vein, I must ask this: Are you a leader if you aren’t currently serving the needs others?

The mission to serve my friends so many years ago intrigues me today. Saying no just wasn’t an option. And it wasn’t easy. (Adults often unintentionally make light of the struggles of children, and if I’m not careful, I sometimes find myself minimizing the importance of my own experience.) But it was a big deal! I wonder if I understood the essence of leadership better at the age of ten than I do today.

What might have happened if I didn’t respond to my personal and civic duty to lead my friends in our quest to play jacks? Honestly, it’s hard to say. But I do know this: someone else would be telling this story. Someone else would have had taken advantage of the opportunity to take a journey toward developing their mind, heart, and conviction. I would be reading about their growth, not telling the story of mine. I’m glad I confronted the wizard.

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