Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
The message of “the courage to lead,” the theme of the 2015 KSBA Annual Conference, was delivered in self-deprecating, stand-up comedy style by plenary speaker Mike Staver.
But in between his funny stories playing up very human foibles, Staver explained what it takes to be a courageous leader, starting with the ability to forge on in spite of excuses – “reasons” – given by those being led, from lack of time to “not my job” to being tired to not understanding.
All leaders hear these excuses, but, Staver said, “What it takes to lead, to be courageous, is to lead in spite of these. If we’re going to lead courageously, if we’re going to have the kind of impact we want to have in our districts, if we’re going to have the kind of impact we want to have in our regions and in our schools, we have to accept the presence of the challenge, but deny the power.”
One of the more serious stories he told was that of Glenn Cunningham, who wasn’t expected to walk again after his legs were damaged in a fire, yet went on to become a track star who competed in two summer Olympics during the 1930s. Cunningham did not allow his condition to dictate his outcomes, Staver said.
While we live by averages, he said, instead of looking at the extremes of above or below average, the goal in being courageous should be to move the entire average line, “and that takes courage.”
It also takes the ability to overcome the natural gravitation of people to what makes them comfortable, but, he said, leaders should “lean into discomfort.”
“The biggest fish are in the roughest waters,” Staver said, quoting a fisherman friend. “Your biggest opportunity to lead courageously is where the waters are roughest. Your biggest chance at huge impact in your community is in the rough water, not in the calm water. Your biggest opportunity is to look where the challenge is in your area of influence and say ‘What is the opportunity in this challenge?’
“Comfort is an indication we may not be leading courageously.”
Leaders also need to be courageous enough “not to waste your energy on things that are low-return activities,” and instead invest energy into what reaps a high return. This is something we can control, he said.
Staver listed three barriers to leading courageously: the need to be right, the need to be in control and the need to be all things to all people.
To get over the need to be right, he said, be more interested in asking than telling; “be curious and ask good questions. If you have the need to be right, you’re going to spend more time convincing than you are asking,” he said. “Courageous leaders don’t need to convince – they need to ask.”
As for the need for control: “Let it go.
“It is an illusion. People who have a need to be in control are out of control because their need to be in control is in control of them.”
To overcome that third barrier, Staver said, “Just say ‘no.’ Most of the problems that leaders get into is (because) they say ‘yes’ to the things they need to say ‘no’ to and ‘no’ to the things they need to say ‘yes’ to.” A person’s yeses and nos should be aligned with their core values, he said.
Staver outlined six steps to apply in leadership:
• Accept your circumstances as they are – starting with yourself, and then your board, district or region.
• Take responsibility – Create a “culture of responsibility,” on a board, and not a culture of blame. The former results in solutions.
• Acknowledge progress – “We need to be making sure that we give a lot of lift to the people on the front lines every single day,” he said; in the case of school boards, that means people like teachers, principals and superintendents.
• Commit to new habits – Research is showing that, “There is one habit that will make you a courageous leader: be grateful,” Staver said.
• Kindle your leadership – by practicing the steps above.
• Take action – To do this effectively, he said, “we’ve got to take these steps very seriously.”