It’s A Wonderful Life.

My oldest brother, Rob, knows more about movies than anyone I know.  When I was 19, he introduced me to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and since that time it has become my favorite movie.  George Bailey, the central character, is a small town person who wants to be a major success in a big city.  Through a series of events, including World War II and his father’s death, George ends up staying in his hometown.  Then, when one catastrophic business mistake could result in George going to jail, he considers extreme measures to remedy the situation.  Thinking he is worth more dead than alive, George stands on a bridge ready to jump.  It is at this point in the movie where George is given the unique opportunity to visualize what life in his hometown would have been like had he never been born.

This summer, the Walker community grieved as Scott Shockley, class of 2012, passed away after a twenty-six month battle with cancer.  While all of us mourn a life cut short prematurely, there is no denying the positive impact Scott had on this community over the last fifteen years.  Like George, Scott had significant dreams, some of which will not be realized.  And, like George, Scott’s character, charisma, empathy, fire, perseverance, and faith touched each person who knew him.  Scott’s life is evidence that the answer to the age-old question, “Can one person make a difference?” is yes! His life changed those around him for the better – classmates, teammates, teachers, family, caregivers at Children’s Hospital, and other adults and children who were also battling cancer. Who could blame Scott, if, like George, he asked “Why me?”  But Scott did not live with regret; he lived with passion, grateful for each day.  His mantra was “Remember the past, plan for the future, but live for today; because yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come.”

In the midst of our grief, Scott’s example encourages us to enjoy each day, right where we are, and with those we have been blessed to know. Rather than aggressively complaining about our current phase of life (“I can’t wait until high school!” “I can’t wait until I drive.” “I can’t wait to get out of the house and go to college!”), Scott’s example compels us to slow down and treasure the present. Consider that Scott was offered numerous times to participate in “Make A Wish,” where he could have one of his major dreams realized.  Scott always declined the offer because he said that everything he dreamed about was right here in front of him – his family, his friends, his fishing pole.

As I joined many others in celebrating Scott’s life, I could not help but think of these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

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“Don’t say ‘Yes’ until I finish talking.” – Thoughts on Leadership

Throughout the last fourteen years, I have often been asked, “Just what does the head of school do?”  While there are many components to the job description for a head of school, two have always risen to the top for me – one tangible, the other more difficult to quantify.  First, it is important to provide leadership that supports the mission of the school. The mission becomes the filter for every question asked and every decision considered – at the board level or in the classroom.  Carrying out the mission is articulated most succinctly in the hiring process, the more tangible of the two key responsibilities for the head of school.  It has always been my goal to hire the best possible person for each position at the school and give them the freedom to soar and the directive to question.   Why the directive to question? Perhaps the following example will best explain the answer.

Recently I watched a documentary on Richard Zanuck, who produced movies such as Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. During the documentary, Richard spoke of his father, Darryl Zanuck, one of the most celebrated movie producers of all time.  The elder Zanuck was best known for saying, “Don’t say ‘Yes’ until I finish talking.” I was dumbfounded by the message in that counterintuitive statement and how powerfully it captures a key component of effective leadership.  Zanuck, as the co-founder of 20th Century Fox, was besieged by “yes” people – employees who wanted to be the first to tell the boss exactly what they thought he wanted to hear. But Zanuck didn’t want his ideas to be unchallenged; he wanted people who were mission-focused, thoughtful, and, most importantly, unafraid to offer a counter opinion.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, put it this way: “You need executives who argue and debate–sometimes violently–in pursuit of the best answers…”  Isn’t this spirit evident in every engaging classroom?  Don’t all great teachers and independent schools foster a healthy spirit of debate?  Aren’t independent school graduates expected to matriculate to college and continue developing this enthusiasm for thoughtful examination?  Thus, it is vitally important that school leaders model such an appreciation for vigorous, meaningful debate.

The administrative team at Walker is comprised of nine individuals who support the mission of the school, but are evaluated by and report to the head of school.  Therein lies the temptation to acquiesce and the need for a “directive to question.”  Fostering a spirit of inquiry produces lively discussions about learning, discipline, traditions and other mission-centered topics. As a result, there have been strong counter opinions offered and instances where my thoughts have been challenged.  From there, some of our best work as an administration has begun and set us on a path to evolve as an even stronger school. Bringing the right people together to think, debate and implement new ideas that advance our mission is one of the most rewarding components about my service as Walker’s Head of School.