Acknowledgement to Battelle for Kids Executive Director Jim Mahoney for the inspiration and structure of this speech.
Good afternoon and thank you so much for the honor of being here to close down what has been a very successful conference. I’d like to express my appreciation to all the education leaders here, especially school board members. Your love, dedication, and service to your communities inspires us all. Thank you for everything you do to help move Iowa’s schools from good to great to world-class.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book a couple of years ago titled “Eat, Pray, Love” that chronicled her personal journey from a tough period in her life to a better place. My wife has both read the book and seen the movie. I’ve been resistant to both, for obvious reasons! I believe Brad Pitt is a lead character in the movie, who incidentally bears a striking resemblance to Governor Branstad. Words of wisdom – take every available opportunity to butter up the boss!
In her personal journey, Gilbert related her story to “Eat,” meaning have fun and enjoy life’s blessings, “Pray” in attending to the importance of her spiritual journey, and “Love” in her work to build meaningful relationships with people in her life.
I’d like to share with you my three concepts relating to the work all of us have to do as education leaders. I think these three concepts are important to any leader doing the important work of improving schools, but I hope you will consider and ask what your three concepts might be as well.
First, Courage – Let’s start with an assumption about better schools. “All the easy stuff has already been done. The low hanging fruits have already been picked. The slow, fat rabbits have already been cooked.”
Because of this, leading meaningful change for everyone in this room means confronting difficult issues, entrenched positions, and wicked/complex/vexing problems.
Confronting the important issues comes with conflict, contention, and pressures that will have an effect on even the strongest among us. There is an undeniable cost associated with leadership … this is a sacrifice that everyone in this room has signed up for out of love for your kids and your communities.
Leadership involves having the courage to take on the meaningful issues irrespective of that cost. It takes courage to pressure your organizations into a place of disequilibrium, uncomfortableness, and uncertainty and also be willing to serve as beacons of strength, persistence, and commitment in the uneven and imperfect process of change.
It takes courage to press for meaningful change. For the sake of our children – we must have that courage.
Next, Curiosity – futurist and author Seth Godin wrote that we are all born with innate curiosity and incredible imagination. At age 2 we are all musicians, experimenting with sounds on pots and pans and our own voices. At age 4 we are all artists, experimenting with shape, color, line – engaged in the work of creation. At around age 7 some amazing teacher has taught us to read and we are all poets, combining words and sounds in unusual, fun ways. Perhaps at age 10 we all become scientists, collecting and experimenting with the world around us – raising all sorts of interesting questions and looking for evidence of truth.
A sad fact for all of us is that as we become adults, many of us lose this natural curiosity.
And in many cases we lose curiosity out of the very adult need to be “right.”
Sometimes we become too preoccupied with winning the moment or the debate – we lose track of the fact that our lives are a process of learning and learning requires curiosity. If you aren’t learning and growing, you aren’t living and so long as we retain that capacity to learn and grow – we thrive. It’s not about always being “right,” it should be about always learning.
The more we make our lives about winning the arguments instead of learning the lessons – the more we lose one of the great joys of our human existence.
Everyone in this room is an education leader. If you haven’t already felt it, enormous pressure will be put on all of us to have all the answers, to come up with the easy solutions, and to make mistake free decisions and live mistake free lives – as if that were even possible.
While we must do our best to make good decisions that are often technical in nature, we must also work to protect our fundamental curiosity – that spark of question and imagination that makes learning possible and keeps all of us growing.
Protecting our curiosity keeps us all learners.
Finally, Commitment – everyone in this room shares a deep commitment born out of love for our children, our schools, our neighbors, and our communities.
We all want a better education system, but the process of getting them involves a meaningful, personal, and even spiritual commitment to the moral importance and purpose of this work.
All of us have to make this commitment to better schools a driving part of all our lives.
Real improvement is difficult, challenging, messy, iterative work – but our schools so desperately need a genuine – an honest – a meaningful commitment from every education leader that we will put ourselves on the line, as many times as that takes, to bring about the meaningful changes and improvements our schools require.
I believe these three concepts of “Courage, Curiosity, and Commitment” are valuable and important to any leader. I hope my thinking has been in some way of service to you in your work toward better schools for your community. I am honored to be with you today and please know you have my best wishes in the days to come.