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Always Strive to Be a Better You: Leading Off the Edge of the Map

Remember Rowlf the Dog from "The Muppet Show"? Sure, you have images of Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and Fozzie Bear bouncing freely in your memory bank, but no Rowlf the Dog? He may not have been your most favorite Muppet, but now that I've mentioned him, you have to admit he was one heck of a piano player.

Why, when tickling the ivories prior to singing "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" with Kermit in 1979's The Muppet Movie, he humbly accepts the Frog's praise by saying, "I'm no Heifetz, but I get by."


Rowlf was referring to Jascha Heifetz, the Russian-born violin prodigy. This is not the same Heifetz as Ronald A., who in 1994 penned Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press), but there's a connection in here somewhere, I just know it, so stick with me.

In reading Ronald A.'s investigation into a definition of the term "leadership" that takes values into account, I came upon a reference he made to Sidney Hook's 1943 The Hero in History, in which Hook claims "Some men [sic] are eventful, while others are event-making."

History shines a light on event-makers. For some, it's a spotlight, illuminating the great and wondrous innovations produced by a person of action. For others, it's the single dangling 100-watt bulb of a damp interrogation room, demanding explanation for unwarranted deeds. Either way, event-makers make history -- and, in the end, we're all just history, aren't we?

By the way, who invented the electric light bulb? That's correct: Thomas Edison.* And who didn't invent the light bulb? Correct again: Every other unnamed person on the face of the earth. Who do you remember? Who does history favor, then? Thrice correct: The event-maker.


At the risk of inundating you with Cliff Clavinesque facts, wasn't it Ferdinand Magellan** who first circumnavigated the globe in 1519-1521? This Portuguese explorer had devised a plan, refused to accept "no" as an answer, and leapt forward to carry it out -- he was an event-maker.

To relate this to the principalship, sometimes the best course of action is one that no one has ever taken before. Our students' new and varied needs scream out for a divergent approach. Sometimes it's okay to shun the status quo -- verily, there are times that it's preferable to ignore what everyone else is doing, in the name of growth and progress. In fact, some moments appear before us, begging us to obliterate that old standby (the status quo, not "The Muppet Movie") and to forge a new path. Into the mysterious unknown we go!

As school principals, often where we lead is off the edge of the map. Captain Barbossa*** (from Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean") may warn us, "Here there be monsters," but our quest for excellence must know no bounds. We must be willing to excuse ourselves from the masses and serve as pioneers, breaking ground and cutting waves -- this is where breakthroughs lie, this is where obstacles are overcome, this is where questions are answered, and this is where excellence awaits.


History will reward the event-makers, and as principals we have a choice to make: Will we react to the events of yesterday, or will we make the events of tomorrow? Certainly, one might argue that this is a pursuit of glory, of achievement, and the garnishment of superlatives. But what argument for glory ever began with a reference to a floppy-eared, mild-mannered puppet?

No, this is an argument for turning over every stone -- in fact, sailing far from the beaten path just to find additional stones to turn over -- in order to discover what works for every individual child. In schools, the status quo is often silently revered -- we do as was done unto us, even if that original doing was done decades before.

In recent years, we've learned so much about the way children learn, about the way brains process information, and about instructional pedagogy that we'd be remiss to ignore it. Unfortunately, the status quo is often a decade or two (or ten) behind. Are we truly providing what our students deserve if we turn a blind eye to the best, most recent, and most promising information? How long can we stifle our inner excellence?

New results require new action. New action demands new learning. New learning insists upon new thought. So go ahead -- think off the map, weigh your options, and create a plan. (A plan, mind you, is not the same as shooting from the hip; a plan indicates a certain level of forethought and understanding.) Make it happen. History rewards the event-makers among us.

As for the Heifetz connection: Jascha, a violin virtuoso who wowed audiences for over 60 years, sought perfection at every turn. Ronald A. could have studied Jascha for lessons in leadership: Part of what compelled Jascha's incessant desire for perfection was his self-admitted horror of mediocrity.

Rowlf the Dog, meanwhile, just got by.

Always strive to be a better you,

* Lesser-known fact: Edison didn't actually invent the first electric light bulb; he fixed errors in others' attempts and made the first commercially-produced electric light bulb that worked consistently. But he is rightly remembered for his innovations.

** Magellan, sadly, did not complete the globe's first circumnavigation, either. We remember his name for this feat, even though he died on the trek and didn't see it to completion. Some of his original crew, however, did make the entire journey, carrying his torch as a vanguard.

*** As a word of caution: Any time you heed a warning from a fictional character from a wildly popular film, take a break, make yourself a quesadilla, get a haircut and then get back to your work. It's apparent that you need some reality grounding.


Article by Pete Hall
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