Servant Leadership, SLIDE21 Blog

“Leadership Comes Not From Your Title, But From Your Heart”: My Conversation With Tim Hadley

Touched by a video I saw on Facebook of an Iowa school principal shaving his head as a teachable moment about bullying, and determined to continue the growing conversation about servant leadership, I went in search of the man behind the moment. I found him. I emailed him. To my shock, he emailed back.

To my even greater shock, he agreed to chat the following morning.  Right on time, at 9:30 am EST, on a cool Thursday in May, a handsome face and booming voice smile across the border at me on Google Hangouts.  

This is his story.

The Backstory

Jackson Johnston, a sixth grade student, had shaved his head to support his grandfather who was suffering from stage four leukaemia.  Determined to do something to show his support, Jackson was crestfallen and confused by the mocking and jeering and nasty comments received at school.  He couldn’t understand why he was being treated so badly.

His mother, learning this, called Principal Tim Hadley late one night to share her concerns.  Principal Hadley listened to her and hung up feeling unsettled, knowing he had to do something.  He consulted the student handbook, reviewing the policies he already knew. Suspension was an option, of course.  But Hadley had another idea.

He called Jackson’s mother back and asked if she still had the clippers Jackson had used to shave his head.  Instead of sending a bunch of students home on suspension, he wanted to send a message. He wanted, he says, to show them what right looks like.

The Video

In the video that has since gone viral, Hadley says that he is proud of his young student, and talks about what a great thing Jackson has done for his grandfather.  Hadley asks for a show of hands for everyone who knows someone who has been affected by cancer. When nearly everyone in the room raises their hand, the unspoken lesson is clear, and the spoken message is clearer still: For us to judge anyone’s reaction, Hadley says, is wrong, and we can do better.  

And then, in a show of solidarity and an example of the teachable moment used to its utmost, Hadley lets Jackson shave his head.

The Aftermath

In Hadley’s view, the most important things to come from that lesson were what was not captured on camera, and what happened in the months to come.  Immediately, students came forward to confess that they had been part of the bullying.  There were hugs. There were high fives. There were what Hadley calls “reconciliation moments” which happened organically and were genuine.

Six months after the video aired, a doctor from the University of Iowa saw it and wondered whether Jackson’s grandfather might be a candidate for a stem cell treatment.  The man who was on death’s door has now been given twenty years to share in his grandson’s life.

The Heart Of It All

When I asked Hadley what he believes the job of educators is, he says that it is to educate hearts before you educate minds, that you must make positive deposits in the emotional bank before you can ever withdraw academically.  Educators, he says, are of course tasked with enforcing standards, but their first and most important role is as advocates, as allies.

“…to educate hearts before you educate minds, you must make positive deposits in the emotional bank before you can ever withdraw academically.

Tim Hadley

A good leader, he thinks, is one who people want to follow.  A good leader puts others first but understands there must be a balance of priorities between serving others and caring for self, and that loved ones must never be neglected for the sake of the larger leadership task at hand.  He quotes the famous adage from Roosevelt that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. “

Theodore Roosevelt

Through the wonders of modern video technology, I am ushered into a classroom where Hadley happily engages his students to directly answer a question I pose to him, which is what his students would say about him if they were asked.  Enthusiastic! Caring! Energetic! Crazy! Great public speaker! Makes you happy! Ups your day! And on it goes. They clearly like him, and he smiles as he watches them. It’s a natural connection that is plain to see.

Perhaps the truest evidence of Principal Hadley’s servant leadership is that he is, in fact, no longer Principal Hadley.  In January 2018, prayer led him away from his principalship and back into the classroom where, he says, he feels like he belongs.  He was “fine driving the train, but I want to work with the passengers”. His mornings are spent teaching citizenship and geography classes, and in the afternoon he works with at-risk youth who he feels, for a lot of reasons, are falling through the cracks. The power and prestige of a principalship don’t interest him. That was fun for a time, he says,  but he feels that the real difference he can make is in the classroom, where he plans to stay.

George Bernard Shaw once said that the true joy in life is being used for a purpose you recognize as a mighty one.  Hadley’s beaming smile and easy laugh on Google Hangouts make his joy abundantly obvious, and he knows his purposes is a mighty one. A humble leader he is, and a true servant.

Tim Hadley, you are an outstanding example of servant leadership. At SLIDE21, we honour you, and we lift you up in thanks for the difference you make.

To learn more about how you can become a servant leader in your workplace, click here.


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