Fearless leadership: not a thing (December 2018 #1)

Guest blogger Lena Van Haren reflects here in the skin she is in on her experience as a school leader and an alternative to the notion of “fearless leadership.” Lena Van Haren is a leadership coach for San Francisco Unified School District’s new TLEE (Transformative Leadership for Equity and Excellence) professional development and support program for new school leaders, and has been an SF-CESS partner for several years.


As I opened my inbox, I cringed – my heart beating rapidly, palms forming sweat, jaw clenching.  They were still coming. Mean and full of hatred… from strangers:

“You’re complete scum”

“…your twisted view of diversity…”

“…you’ve taught your students how to be racist in the name of ‘diversity’”

“Forcing diversity is fascism.”

“You sick, twisted liberal white idiots that hate white people…you are a f-ing bigot.”

“Quit being a stuck up liberal b*tch.”

“You are one incredibly stupid woman…you don’t deserve your job.”

Then I opened the last email, from my boss:

“You are a fearless leader but there are instances when you have to take a step back. This may be that instance. Send another email that you have reconsidered and that you will honor the election and that you will have a forum with students about diversity…this is a teachable moment!”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  I was confused and tired, but also clear with conviction.  A new principal, I was in the midst of a right-wing media storm that reached far beyond our local context and stemmed from my decision to pause on sharing our student council election results with our community (our racially and economically diverse middle school elected a student council that was nearly 100% homogeneous, representing mostly those from dominant culture) until we’d had an honest and open conversation with all the candidates about diversity and representative voice.

It’s funny that my boss called me “fearless” when in fact I was straight up scared.  But having some fear doesn’t mean we don’t act with courage. It doesn’t mean that we give up when our efforts to interrupt the status quo are met with hatred and resistance.  Working through fear to access our courage is central to equity leadership.

In SFUSD, there are a set of common core values we’ve adopted as a district where the “F” in SFUSD stands for “fearless”.  This word as a value or a descriptor who we want to be has never totally resonated with me, especially as a school leader in today’s climate.  Fear is real and exists for a reason inside us as leaders…so I don’t think being fearless is a worthy aspiration. Developing courage however, which feels like something we need to muster through struggle as well as cycles of self-doubt and challenge, seems like the real and lofty goal.

As leaders, we should question:

How do we recognize and acknowledge fear, sit in collective acknowledgement of it, name it in community, not let it hide inside of us….and then work towards nurturing the collective courage to address the fear and move past it into action?

As leaders (for equity) in today’s climate, it may prove foolish to ignore our fears related to our leadership.  The right-wing media assault related to our student council election was a more public example, but there are many others.  Other examples include…

  • Fear of being personally attacked because of your identity or because of those with whom you choose to form alliances:

As a first-year principal I made it clear to a white parent with socioeconomic privilege in our community that I wasn’t interested in building and expanding an “honors” course structure – which would have kids segregated by race and class within the walls of our diverse school.  Rather, I explained that we were investing heavily in building teacher skill around differentiation and creating collaborative learning structures in the classroom. This parent, miffed by my answer, had powerful connections to the school board and was able to bring a topic of whether or not I was the right fit for the job to the closed session school board meeting later that month.  Luckily the board and enough of my superiors knew my work and recognized this as one person’s biased point of view, but the power of one privileged parent’s “dislike” of our equity mission was eye opening for me.

  • Fear of getting on the “bad side” of superiors when expectations and decision-making structures for our work aren’t clear or focused on what’s best for our children.  

As our school transformed from underperforming to higher performing, many more parents were interested in sending their child to our school. The size began to grow slowly which was challenging but manageable. Then suddenly, unbeknownst to our school’s leadership team, there was a decision made to double the size of our incoming 6th grade class. This was a last minute, adult-centered decision that would have the most negative impact on groups of vulnerable students such as our newcomers.  I was practiced in relentlessly saying yes to things that seemed they would move our school towards our equity mission and pushing back hard against decisions and proposals that would hurt us. When I pushed back, I was met with “disappointment” that I wasn’t a team-player, that I needed to step up to the plate and accept more students, and that there was “no time to meet with me.”  I was left with the decision, similar to above, where I must choose between protecting political alliances necessary to stay in my job and fighting for what I knew would be best for our newcomers and other vulnerable student groups.  

In each of the above cases, I had to face my own fears as a leader. I was able to “cope” and overcome, and continue to lead our school.  AND it’s also essential to name that my own white upper middle-class heterosexual privilege allows me to avoid and frequently not even be aware of a multitude of fears that are real, daily and insidious (or not) for my colleagues who belong to marginalized groups.  Privilege that allows me to push back and still have best assumptions made about me at every turn. I think about the fears of my colleagues across difference and the questions I never have to ask myself when confronting challenges.

I think about the fears of our leaders of color…”if I say something will I be seen as “that black woman”?”

I consider the fears of my LGBTQ colleagues…”If I am my true self out in open will there be consequences to my safety?”  

My leadership question evolves: How should we, as equity leaders, recognize, manage and lead with courage in spite of fear?  

And as the new year approaches, I’m specifically asking myself: How do I make 2019 a year of cultivating collective courage?

I’m in a brand, new role coaching first year school leaders, and I aim to offer concrete ideas, probing questions and antidotes when fears arise as they do…all the time.  One antidote is in leaders coming together and acknowledging that we are not alone.  The feeling of isolation or “it’s only me” is common amongst school leaders who have no peers at their school site.  Learning and reflecting as a community can provide great rejuvenation and strength. As educators, we must be adamant about creating conditions for genuine connection, healing and transformational learning just like we want for our young people.  Also, we must refuse to sit in meetings or ”learning” spaces that don’t meet our needs, that don’t meet the standards we expect for the learning spaces of our students. By coming together, we can experience universality, and we gain the strength and courage necessary to lead for equity.

Another important piece of work is to remind ourselves frequently of our own personal “why?”:  Why we are in this work?  What brought us to this work originally?  How is our purpose evolving over the months and years?  

For me, part of my “why” includes continuously working to make sense of white allyship, continuing to widen paths of leadership for women, and first and foremost bringing about radically different outcomes for our least-reached students.  When I’m feeling stuck and anxious, taking time to journal, to talk with a colleague, to reflect silently about my “why” helps to ground me and “fill up” my “cenote” (what Elena Aguilar calls the resilience reserve that each leader must cultivate and tend to).

Something about leadership also seems to position us to forget to call upon our elders.  Taking time to listen to those who have been in the work longer than we have can be cathartic and can help us see ourselves as part of a bigger web of interconnected efforts to make change.  In today’s fast moving technological age, accessing the wisdom of those before us may require us to check our assumptions – assumptions that we can have all the answers, and assumptions that those before us have less to offer simply because she or he hasn’t mastered all the ins and outs of Google drive.

In order to work collectively towards racial justice, we as school leaders must be honest with ourselves about our own fears and build ways within ourselves and our communities to maintain conviction and strength in the face of them.  Maybe we should move from being fearless to cultivating courage collectively.  It doesn’t work quite as well with the SFUSD acronym, but I propose it may more accurately describe the equity-centered value our community of educators aspires to.


Leadership (February 2014 #3)

In a society that values leadership, how much humility do you need to be a follower?

Who are you willing (or not) to follow?  When do our least-reached students need you to lead vs. follow? 

Who do our least-reached students need you to follow? 

Presidents’ Day does not make me think about specific presidents, but rather about leadership… and responsibility.   Years after Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”, Julian Weissglass specifically defined leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…”.

As a principal for a school named Leadership High School, we adopted Weissglass’ definition and had a mission to empower each of our graduates to be able to lead.  Fulfilling this promise was built on a number of subtle assumptions:

  1. Underlying any effort to develop leadership, a belief that everyone could and should be a leader;

  2. The obvious indicator that one could only be a leader if s/he could have others follow her or him, and

  3. The recognition that if we all could and should lead, then each of us also needs and must be able to follow at times.

It is this third assumption that sits in my mind and heart today – and that will be the focus of this Monday Musing.

When I first reflect on “followship”, I think about who it is that I have followed in my own life. Three types of leaders surface as those types of leaders I have followed at different times and for different purposes: the “sexy” leader, the mentor and the expert across difference.

The “sexy” leaders, those who wow me with their passion and knowledge, usually had what some call the “it factor” (charm, bells, whistles, and a fan base).  In general, “sexy” leaders frequently received my espoused followhip before I could examine or engage in the depth or integrity of their actual knowledge or practice.  While many evolved to become mentors and experts across difference in my life, I learned others were inconsistent or had messages that grew stale.  Those in this latter group also were important and influential to my development, but their leadership was less for me to follow, and more for me to be critical of.  (The word critical does not only have a negative intent).

As my own work and responsibilities deepened, I found the importance of following those who had done similar work and to learn from their experiences – not only their successes, but also their failures.  The more I sought out mentors, the more I realized that context mattered.  It was not enough to seek mentorship from other teachers, principals or coaches who were considered successful.  Rather, it mattered where they were successful as well as with and for whom they were successful.  Did they work with similar schools and adults?  Were they committed to similar students and families?  Did our values and beliefs align?  And because context matters, were their own experiences of life similar enough to my own – did we share enough experiences in the skin we are in to suggest that there was enough affinity for mentorship?  Frequently my mentors not only have had success in their work with and for students, but also in their work with themselves as members of dominant culture.

With the context of my work ever-becoming increasingly diverse, having mentors or leaders with whom I share affinity serves as a limitation for what is possible regardless of who is leading.  Counter to my training to excel in dominant culture, I must have the humility to learn and accept what I don’t know – and NOT to think that everything is for me to know as much or more than anyone else.  This is especially true when knowledge and skills are uniquely experiential based on the skin we are in.  Given who we are charged to serve in public education, sometimes the best I can do is to follow the lead of those who know better – or more – than I do.  I constantly must remind myself to remain open to following others lead much more than my dominant culture upbringing has prepared me to do.

When I am blessed, this work with experts across difference is cultivated within my work environment, but an absence of such a culture does not serve as an excuse not to do the work.  Even though following experts across difference through collaboration is an amazing and powerful tool of change and development, there is endless research and literature available that offers counters to my own experiences, beliefs and perspectives.  I can develop as an ally and follower in many different ways towards the service of my least-reached students and students least like me.

On this Presidents’ Day, reflecting on Weissglass’ definition of leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…” has now brought me to consider that not only is humility an essential trait of any leader, but so is the very humble act of conscious and purposeful followship.