By Nelson Coulter
Over the years I have often encouraged, even admonished, young folks entering my profession (educational leadership) to stay “grounded.” I use that word often, but too rarely clarify what it means.
In his book titled Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land (2011), Kurt Timmermeister eloquently chronicles his personal evolution from big city restaurateur to small-time farmer. His writing reinforces what Moe (my lovely bride) and I have learned about being stewards of the land - that our lives are more settled (i.e., “grounded”) when we choose to live with the natural forces of sun, wind, rain, seasons, life, and death, rather than to frantically and futilely oppose them. We have learned (are learning) to be grounded. But, what does the word “grounding” mean in the context of my mentoring young school leaders?
I think it means this: just as the elements and life forms of nature create a tapestry of intertwined and interdependent existence, so does the “life” of communities, of which its schools are simply a reflection, exist. The schools as organizations have “life” in them; they are made up of adults and students of all sizes and ages and beliefs and dreams. As well, they are made up of a wide range of gifts, systems, processes, coalitions, and rhythms. When we, as school leaders, try to ignore that diversity of thinking and gifts, when we try to force homogeneity (whether by standardized curriculum, standardized testing, standardized clothing, or standardized behavior) we have, in effect, attempted to create what in nature is known as a monoculture. In those efforts we introduce disharmony and dissonance between and among the very folks for whom we wish the opposite.
The effect of these attempts to force homogeneity (to create a monoculture) is diminishment and devaluation of the very individuals and/or groups we presume to be “helping.” Time and again, the authors of leadership texts remind us to spend more time developing relationships as the primary tool of leadership (rather than mandating and bureaucratizing).
Thus, I believe being “grounded” as a leader means to put ones eyes, ears, heart, and hands to the natural “pulse” of the school as an organization. We must learn to trust that struggling to contrive and fabricate systems that work against the flow of nature means we create disharmony, both within the organization and within ourselves. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that we must, both in our work and in our personal lives, move toward that concept of being a good steward of the relationships, organizations, land, and resources with which we have been entrusted.
In effect, we must become better servants. That is the only way we can ever achieve that state of being “grounded.”