Top Ten Lessons

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Last week, I was with a wonderful group of 4th and 5th graders who are in my outdoor elective. We were en route to Bridgewalk Pond and one child asked, “Beth, what have you learned from being Head of School?” This question made me think and inspired me to write the top ten lessons that being a head of school has imparted on me. Thank you, students, for being my most important teacher!

10. Resolve is requisite. Before I began as Head, a very wise man said, “If you try and please everyone, you will please no one.” In life, there are a lot of constituencies, and they all have passionate and well-intentioned opinions. While it is important to listen, you have to make the decision that you feel, in your heart, is the right one. Choose out of love and hope, not out of fear. I have always used a couple of questions in the decision making process: What is right for kids? What is the right thing to do? What would the press say? What would the lawyer say? And what would the priest say? After thoughtful analysis, make the decision that enables you to sleep at night, and then stand firmly by it knowing you respect the person who stares back in the mirror.

9. What you model matters most. As a leader, your greatest influence is delivered by how you conduct yourself. What you do and say matters. Strive to be the person you want others to become.

8. You have two ears and one mouth. Respond accordingly:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

7. Be a lifelong learner. Each experience you encounter is an opportunity for growth. Absorb what you can from everything you encounter, especially challenging people and places. Turn problems into opportunities. Feed your curiosity.

6. Your first priority is to take care of people. My mother has been a hospital CEO for as long as I can remember. I recollect that she has always hung a banner at the entrance of the doctor’s lounge that reads, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” People are the heart, soul, and asset of any organization. Support and love them through their personal trials and triumphs, and inspire them professionally. Don’t judge them until you have walked in their shoes. Regardless of the industry, my mom’s advice has proven time and time again to be true. Also true is how much smarter my dear mother grows with each and every year.

5. Tune the radio in order to separate the static from the important newscast. A slightly militaristic but fruitful experience of being a first year Head is attending the NAIS’s New Heads Institute. Immersed for seven days with colleagues who are just as afraid and nervous as you are, the best advice I learned there was to take the long view. Inform your reaction by evaluating whether or not the issue will matter in five years. When there is something to share, tell it all, tell it early, and tell it yourself. (And as a side note, I also learned that if you ever really mess up, communicate that you will be instituting school uniforms. That announcement will create such controversy that your egregious mistake will soon be forgotten.)

4. Laugh, a lot, and help others do the same. My grandmother grew up in England during World War II. She was left to fend for herself and her two sisters when she was no more than four years old. Successfully monopolizing dropped ration cards, Margaret Berseford supported this female threesome for over twelve months, upon which they were discovered and placed in an abusive foster home. My inspiration for becoming a Head was that my grandmother’s Headmaster secretly bought the three sisters train tickets, enabling them to escape to a wonderful orphanage in Tiptree where they spent their childhood and adolescent years. Her Headmaster literally saved their lives. Regardless of enduring hardships most of us could hardly imagine, Margaret can find humor in any situation. She taught me that it is a universal cure.

             a. P.S. – Need a sure fire joke? What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator!

3. Understand your own strengths and leverage those against your weaknesses. Or as we now refer to them in the 21st century of political correctness, “areas of growth.” When I was first starting my career, a respected colleague, who had been in the position for 38 years, told me, “Beth, the secret to success is to know what you are good at and what you are not. Hire people better than you to do the things that are not your strengths, and don’t care who gets credit for the work done.” In addition to your colleagues, it is also critical to build a dynamic support network of people who are experts. After a decade, I am still frequently surprised by unexpected situations. This not only reminds me how little I know, but how important it is to consult those who do.

2. Be Santa Claus. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that, “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” As a leader, it is your responsibility to embody a dream. In order to provide hope, give your community a vision in which to believe that is larger than any one person. Some of the best things in life are those that can’t yet be seen.

1. Be an eternal optimist. My much younger brother, a Civil Engineer who graduated from Colorado School of Mines, went through a rather Rastafarian phase in college, in which he declared, “Life has a crazy way of working out.” Or to channel my brother’s hero at the time, “Every little thing is goin’a be alright.” Thanks, Mr. Marley. Your prose is timeless.

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