How to lead with courage and vision…and why it matters

I am a huge fan of author and leader Simon Sinek. A few years ago, in preparation for a presentation, I watched his TED Talk, “How great leaders inspire action” and it changed everything for me. I’ve since watched it many, many times and have shared it with others frequently. His work resonates in a big way with me, because of my passion for creating peaceful movements for change.

Forbes recently published an interview with Sinek, where he talks about leadership and the critical importance of courage. As I read about how a lack of courage contributes to diminishing empathy in organizations, I was thinking to myself, “YES!” The article’s author writes, “Simon believes the biggest challenge in a journey of leadership is having courage. ‘When a CEO says they have to do something because of shareholder demands (who are essentially disinterested external constituents), it’s the equivalent of the coach on a team prioritizing the needs of the fans over the players.’”

For me, the foundation of leadership, and the behavior of true leaders has always been so clear. Over the years, I have witnessed situations where courage was lost due to external pressures and how diminished courage can quickly turn into fear, thus undermining the strength of the leader and the team. At it’s most distilled nature, being a leader boils down to a couple of things. First and foremost, it’s about genuine concern for others. If being a leader is more about you, than it is about the people you lead, the people you lead will have no reason to follow you and a leader without followers is no leader. This is a huge piece of successful leadership. Do you have vision? Does your vision resonate with others? And do you take great care in taking care of the individual humans who would go to the ends of the earth for you? I am so proud to know people who do these things and do them well.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Do you have the courage to stay the course, even when the heat is on? Once you’ve done the hard work to earn people’s respect and their belief in you, do you have the courage needed to maintain consistency? The courage to be the shield and take the flames so that those who follow you can safely continue to do the work of bringing your vision to life?” It is an honor to know people who can also do this.

With testing and the resulting events of the last couple of months, I am reminded of an important leadership lesson I learned early in my career:

Over a decade ago, when I was just starting out with my first small business, I encountered a difficult situation related to someone being angry because of the changes I was inspiring. A bump in the road which, without perspective and the wisdom of experience, felt like a Mount Everest sized disaster. I recall talking it through with my mentor and as I detailed the events leading to my urgent need to react, I realized something: what I really needed to do was take a deep breath and stay the course. I remember this like it was yesterday. She looked at me with her quirky smile and said, “Yes, Michelle, you were on the right track to begin with and you just need to stay focused. Stay the course.”

As today’s leaders in education, where change must happen in order to serve our children and give them the tools they need to grow and become in today’s world, we are shouldered with the great responsibility of having the vision to see what needs to be done and the courage to make it happen. We are the cultivators and caretakers of the seeds of change. Sewing the seeds of change takes patience and a strong resolve as the results of this type of change can take years to mature into something of value that can be measured. They are like planting and nurturing seeds that will create great forests which will outlast us. Without courage and consistency in this process, we run the risk of expending extraordinary financial and human resources to plant these seeds, and when immediate results aren’t enjoyed, ripping up the seeds to start the expensive cycle all over again, doomed to never produce the outcomes we are hoping for.

Know when change is necessary and do the work to make it happen. Once you’ve made a commitment, stay the course. The people who have chosen to follow your lead are counting on you.

This post is dedicated to all of the amazing school leaders out there who show up every day with the courage to do the hard work and maintain the long view.

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