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Leadership Designed

November 6, 2012

by Kyle Armstrong, Associate Head of Academics

Greetings from Swain, and I hope your family is well during this busy, unpredictable season.

Not only was our area hit with a rare hurricane, but the election season certainly brings some extraneous or invaluable chatter into our lives, depending on your outlook.

For me, as an educator in a school such as Swain, the national dialogue about our next leader brings to mind the concept of how to develop leadership skills in our students.

The second grade pollsters – Nathaniel and Claire – take their job seriously, as
Mrs. Ritchie stops by to cast her vote.

Recently, NPR published an article titled: “Decision Time: Why Do Some Leaders Leave A Mark?”  This piece examines why we remember a president like Abraham Lincoln and not presidents like William Henry Harrison or Millard Fillmore (our ninth and 13th presidents, respectively).

Essentially, the premise of the article is that waterline decisions may or may not produce outstanding leaders, but that successful decisions come with courage, foresight, and usually an element of surprise.  For example, during the Ft. Sumter ordeal of 1861 when the US was on the brink of the Civil War, most people thought Lincoln would either declare war on the South or ignore the seceding states.  Instead, Lincoln bucked all public opinion and only sent supplies to Sumter (a sea fort off Charleston, South Carolina).  As a result, the Confederates fired the first shot attacking the Union, spurring a groundswell of unity and nationalism from the Union side.  This in turn emboldened Lincoln and the Union to launch into the Civil War.

According to Warren Bennis, a well-known leadership scholar and professor at USC, “Abraham Lincoln and George Washington both had long-range vision.  Washington was not a great general, but one overriding, passionate goal was to keep this country unified.”  In addition, Bennis also sated that while everyone else is focused on the next battle, the greats focus on posterity.

In our schools—in this age of unpredictability and constant change—we must intentionally teach leadership.  Maybe some people are born with natural decision-making skills, but that is not an idea humanity can count on.

Instead, creating situations in safe environments where kids can practice making decisions has to be something we weave into the fabric of school.  For example, at Swain we have programs that give students opportunities to weigh options, consider consequences, and then execute decisions.  From learning how to self-monitor in Guided Reading groups, to lab-based science programming, to our capstone Eighth Grade Independent Study curriculum, to a formalized leadership plan for the older students, these areas of school life afford children independence, responsibility, and opportunities to practice decision making.

Eighth graders Zach, Alex and Connor collaborate on the program they’ve written to power a Lego robot, in our new STEAM program

In accordance with our Mission and ethos, programming decisions at Swain always come back to the great triumvirate of collaboration, integration, and problem solving.  Each concept in-and-of-itself gives students opportunities to make decisions.  Taken together, programs that incorporate all three concepts—such as our seventh and eighth grade STEAM initiative—maximize our ability to expose kids to the complexities involved in making sound and sometimes breakthrough decisions.  Anecdotally, it is the repetition of making sound decisions that hardwires the brain to function that way on a regular basis.  In the end, sound decision making skills enable leadership reserves to be tapped in each and every child.

Collaboration, integration, and problem solving.  Courage, foresight, and a sprinkle of surprise.  Whoever you vote for today, maybe it is with the hope that they can execute these ideas central to sound decision-making and quality leadership.

With our students, we must not simply hope for that to happen.  We must be intentional about providing a

framework that fosters soundness in thinking.  Schools exist to provide nurture, knowledge, and organization, but maybe above all else they exist—or should strive to exist—to develop young men and women who can diplomatically and peacefully navigate our changing world.

Enjoy the end of the fall season, and please keep in your hearts and minds those who have been so greatly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Thanks for reading, and until next time:

“The secret of a leader lies in the tests he has faced over the whole course of his life and the habit of action he develops in meeting those tests.”

 -Gail Sheehy, American Writer and Critic


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