In this corporate world of ROIs and strategic narratives, we may only look so far as our nearest manager for lessons to be learned. This would be a mistake. For some of our greatest lessons were learned when we were only children, from leadership giants on whose shoulders we are now lucky enough to stand.
In 1992, the local district of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) voted to carry out a strike. Mulroney was Prime Minister, Bob Rae was Premier, and nobody was happy. The strike lasted six weeks and the city went to war, with vitriolic arguments filling the pages of the Ottawa Citizen.
A young high school principal was faced with the task of leading his demoralized and divided staff through a strike which would force many into financial peril and permanently damage some formerly wonderful collegial relationships. The convention of OSSTF was that principals and vice principals were to donate their salaries and receive only strike pay in lieu. But they were still legally obligated to be inside the school each day. This meant crossing the picket lines, never a popular thing to do even though all involved understood there wasn’t much choice. They were standing apart, because as administrators they bound by rules that set them apart, but they had to keep the school team together.
And so “Dan and Moe’s Most Excellent Letters” was born.
Robert Greenleaf tells us that servant leaders are servants first, that they lead from a place of focus on others’ needs rather than on their own gain. A servant-leader seeks to facilitate another’s growth; to lean in; to walk beside. The difference, he says, “manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”
In this case, the teachers needed understanding of their position in the labour dispute. They needed to be sustained in such a way that could return to work and be effective at their jobs. They needed a morale boost, an arm around their shoulders. They needed a leader who could walk beside them.
These leaders weren’t allowed to walk beside their teachers, quite literally. So instead they wrote a newsletter to stay connected, every single day, for six long weeks. The teachers were prohibited by law from entering the school, and therefore unable to deliver answers for the newsletter’s trivia contest. But no matter, since the secretaries were not OSSTF and continuing to work as usual. Paper stuffed into basketballs rolled out onto the tarmac also worked in a pinch. These school administrators knew the rules. Of course they did; they had to. They chose to abide by those rules, and then promptly to bend them as all good leaders find ways to do.
The principal and vice principal remained accountable and accessible to their staff. Where time allowed, they listened with intent, sometimes picketing with the staff before heading into the school as required at 8:30am. They did what they could to ensure that the trust the staff had placed in them remained in tact. They crossed picket lines because they had to, and then had pizza and donuts delivered to hungry protesters. When it poured rain, as it often did that cold spring, coffee and tea from Tim Horton’s always found its way to the picketers.
When the strike ended, the staff were tired. They were angry at their school board and at their critical city. They were worried about their finances. But on day one, the principal and vice principal were standing right where they should have been: at the front door of the school, to welcome their high performing team of teachers back home. And because their leaders had served them, those teachers had enough, just enough, to go back to their classrooms and their students with gratitude and a sense of purpose, and get to work.
Sometimes good leaders are born. More often, they are made, by circumstance and through education. Let our ShuHaRi program make you into the great leader you’ve been waiting to become.
For Daniel Mason, with many thanks for all the lessons about leadership that I learned as a child, listening to my father talk about his day at the dinner table.