New York State School Boards Association

Leadership Lessons from the North Pole

by Patrick Longo

On Board Online • December 11, 2017

Patrick Longo
Member Relations Manager

I'll never forget Christmas morning of 1975. My father was a teacher, and teachers were on strike. My four siblings and I dashed down the stairs and into our family room. Rather than a mountain of presents, we found just one present for us all to share: a puppy.

Small present, big impact. So much so that we didn't even realize that we didn't get any other major gifts that year.

Oh, I also got a stocking stuffed with Hershey's Kisses, M&Ms in the plastic candy cane case, and of course, actual candy canes. But the sugar buzz and its resulting "hangover" were temporary. The puppy buzz? Over 14 years, I loved every moment I shared with that dog, even when she commandeered my bed. My point is this: The best gifts have long-term impact.

For you, the upcoming holiday might be a religious event, a time to give thanks, an excuse to eat with family and friends, a chance to unplug, or a corporate conspiracy to get us to buy more stuff (humbug!). But I hope you view it as an opportunity to reflect on the idea of giving.

School board members and school administrators know quite a bit about giving. Many people run for school board or pursue a career in education based on a desire to give back.

About the only person who might know more about giving is Santa Claus, whom I see as a metaphor for our collective desire to care about children - and each other. So, here are some school leadership tips direct from the North Pole.

1. It's all about the kids.

Like you, Santa's got all kinds of operational concerns and he's known to gripe about them. But he always focuses on the kids. Everything he does is for the kids. He wakes up thinking about the kids. He goes to sleep thinking about the kids. He loves the kids. Sure, he knows when they've been naughty and nice, but he sees the goodness in all kids. And, no matter what happens in his personal life, Santa always delivers!

2. Choose with the head; deliver from the heart.

In school district governance, you must operate consistent with state and federal law (that's the head), but you are continually administering a gift (that's the heart). Your best gifts always will be the result of not only careful deliberation and consideration but also the best intentions for all concerned. Deliberate with the head; administer with the heart.

3. We need elves and reindeer.

No school board can create "gifts" for kids without hard work and a lot of help. You have many elves and reindeer in your district quietly making things happen. Acknowledge all of your district elves, and consistently let them know they are appreciated.

4. Lead by example.

Santa is a big, boisterous (some may say ostentatious) man with a huge, white beard, a booming voice, and a dark red suit. He's hard to miss and commands every room. Not all leaders have to be that way. You don't have to be the loudest in the room to command attention or deserve respect. It's what you do in the quiet moments, the moments when people are looking and the moments when they are not, that matter. Be an example in private and in public. Children and everyone else in the district "see" you when you are not looking. So be good, for goodness sake.

5. Know your why.

It probably gets hot and uncomfortable in that big red suit - not unlike a school board being under the glare of the public eye. From time to time, you may question why you go through all the trouble. You know why you're there and you know your governance team has the power to change children's lives for the better. Should you ever feel yourself becoming a Scrooge, watch A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life again. Our best stories include epiphanies; they are meant to bring us to an awakening. Look in your pocket. You just might find Zuzu's petals.

6. Believe in magic.

To be a school leader, you have to believe that you can accomplish what others think impossible. You must always show that you believe in what you do and you believe those around you are capable of great things. In other words, it's always good to believe in a little magic. Have confidence in the potential of your district's students, teachers, support staff and administrators, as well as your peers on the board. Make sure they see it, hear it, and feel it when they interact with you, and they too will believe. And every now and then you might even witness a miracle, not on 34th Street, but whatever address belongs to your schools.

7. You can't always get what you want.

It's hard when you sometimes feel like you're saying "no" more than "yes," but that is the role of the school board, sometimes. Santa knows that feeling. He listens to all the children's requests and does his best to execute, but sometimes Santa must provide kids with things they need, which may not be the same as what they want. Who hasn't gotten good use out of sweaters and socks left under the tree? The Rolling Stones said it best: "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you just might find, you just might find... you get what you need."

8. Spread the cheer.

Don't underestimate the value of spreading cheer. Always feel like you're in the act of giving to help you stay positive, because your impact, no matter how brief, will be lasting. Your imprint on your district as a board member will be felt for years to come. It's easy to be grumpy. It's hard to do your job with cheer. Bring a sense of humor to the board and show kids that though your time is limited, there's always time for a wink and a smile.

We may celebrate it once a year, but don't wait for the holiday season. Santa is a big part of our culture, irrespective of religion. The spirit of caring about others and belonging to a community has to be part of your district culture and maintained with small and big actions year-round.

So spread that pixie dust of believing in the potential of others in every corner of your district, and you'll give students and your community an incomparable gift. Your head can tell you that their education is a right, but in your heart you can always believe it's a blessing.

Happy holidays!


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