“Do you know what a warrior is? Do all warriors have weapons?”
A good friend asked me those two questions recently.
I replied “I think a warrior is a person that fights for something they believe in because they know it is right. They do not give up. And no, I don’t believe they have to have weapons, at least not in the conventional sense.”
He then asked me to hold out my hand to receive a gift. I nervously opened my palm and in it he gently placed a pin. It was not a pin I was familiar with. It was made of sturdy metal and I noticed a star and an eagle holding a lightning bolt and a rifle. It looked tough. He told me it was a was a SWAT pin from his taxing days on special weapons and tactics. He shared the significance of the pin. He called it a “warrior pin” and said I had earned it. The eagle is a symbol of strength, honor, and integrity. He said I was brave and I stood with strength, courage, and integrity through a difficult challenge. Tears rolled down my cheeks because I knew exactly the challenge he was speaking of.
Until that moment, I had not seen myself as courageous or strong. I was still mending from the most difficult trial I had faced as a leader. A trial that changed me. The pin was to remind me of the warrior within me and to continue to be a warrior each day for my students, my school, and my district. It may be the most touching gift I have ever received.
I am an elementary school principal. Four months ago, my school community was torn apart when the news of a parent of a student was being charged with criminal sexual conduct involving children. We were kicked in the gut. We were scared. Our hearts were broken. We felt powerless.
Then came the anger. This is a normal emotion, but at the time I was not prepared for the twist it took. I knew I needed to lead and heal my school community, however, the emotions that come with such unthinkable acts coupled with the media frenzy over such a high interest story led to a coalition of people searching for someone to take the blame. The school? The district? The leaders? In less than a day, it became clear that my superintendent and I would be identified as the ones that should take the blame. It broke me – temporarily.
I had been a respected school principal for 14 years. The anger and hatred I felt from community forums and TV and social media toward me was like nothing I had ever experienced. How do you stand tall when you are crumbling on the inside? How do you smile and have supportive conversations when you spent all night crying? How do you pull yourself away from the criticism and demands for your resignation on TV and social media and face your school community, your neighbors, your friends?
I remember going into Meijer for a few groceries the day after the story as aired showing my school picture like a mugshot and feeling as though everyone in the store knew. My 98-year-old grandmother saw the story on the news and thought I had been fired from the job I loved. A couple days later, my mom called while having dinner at a local grill in the small town I live in.
The story aired again on the public televisions at the grill calling for the resignations of the school and district leaders – again with our pictures. I attended every public forum meeting to listen and try to understand the criticism. I did not have a voice at these meetings. I sat with grace and dignity. I listened. But I was deteriorating inside. This was, without a doubt, my greatest leadership challenge and greatest heart break. Education and leadership are true loves and passions of mine. How could this be happening?
I survived. I weathered the storm and continued walking forward in leadership. And like it or not, I am better because of it. I have learned valuable leadership lessons, and I have indeed become a warrior leader.
Some warriors use weapons to fight with strength, honor, and integrity. School leaders do not use weapons, but they have tools. Leaders have tools they draw upon every day. During tumultuous times, remembering these tools are still within your reach is critical. I learned to find the strength to pull them out and use them in order to survive and lead through times of crisis and conflict. Leaders face challenges all the time. It is when those challenges seem bigger than ourselves that we need to pull from the lessons of warriors.
The first tool is empathy. In order to navigate the emotions involved in the challenge or conflict, you need to identify these emotions and understand them. While I don’t think the anger and hatred directed at me was fair, I can acknowledge that the love and concern parents had for their own children and the fear that this happened in our community drove those emotions. I learned that I don’t have to accept their emotions, I just have to understand them. Warrior leaders start with empathy and they know it is the key to relational trust and effectiveness.
Strength. I found a way to stand tall and to be poised when my leadership was being attacked. This is the most difficult time to stand tall and be poised. If is just on the exterior, that’s okay. I learned that you will grow into this stance on the interior too. Some say, “Fake it until you make it.” You will make it. Warrior leaders dig deep within themselves to find the strength to stand tall.
Know to gather your allies. Leaders do not have to walk alone. I found my allies. I realized that it’s okay to ask them for support. Gather them near you when you need strength. Your allies share your vision, goals, and values – and like you, they also believe they are worth fighting for. Warrior leaders have built a coalition of people with a shared commitment. Therefore, they walk beside their people and their people walk beside them.
Compassion. This is the desire to help people. In this case, it was the desire to help heal our broken school community and to support all of our children and families. Warrior leaders find ways to help and make things better. They also identify when they need help themselves and accept help from others.
Knowledge/experience/skill. Each leader has a unique combination of strengths in each of these three competencies. I learned you need to draw upon your personal power in each to either maintain or re–gain credibility. Warrior leaders constantly build their knowledge capacity. They continually learn, build their skill, and take risks. They know that risk taking, reflective thought, and self-analysis leads them to greater wisdom.
Voice. Share your authentic spoken message. During times of crisis or conflict, it is important to be visible and approachable while speaking proactively, positively, and kindly to all you encounter. Everyone is looking for a leader – be the voice of hope and certainty they need. Warrior leaders give consistent and positive messages to affirm hope, trust, and ensure safety.
I will never be the same person I was before this happened. I mourn the loss of some of my innocent belief in rectitude and goodness. However, I also realize that through such trials we gain new wisdom, new found allies, and stronger relationships. I am grateful for what I have gained and what I have learned.
I am a caring educator. I am a thoughtful leader. AND I am a warrior.