-Amy Fast, Ed.D.
Be not afraid of greatness.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
-Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
I remember my first time watching the New York City marathon. I was standing near a bodega in Williamsburg, waiting for a friend to pass. It was a cool, overcast day in early November and I was drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee, bemused by the scene in front of me. Hordes of people that I don’t know and will never see again were lumbering by, numbered and panting. Meanwhile, people like me, standing in our pathetic jeans and scarves were there to just watch them strive.
Those humans flying by were not running away from danger nor running towards tacos: they were just running. Running to run.
There is a majesty in normal slobs pushing themselves for no reason. The people in these events aren’t professional athletes. These are everyday people doing something extraordinary and difficult and amazing.
Something strange and magical happens to you when you witness a marathon in person. Watching them run, you become a part of something much larger than a race. You clap for these complete strangers that you will never see again, willing some of your energy to leave you and transfer to them, helping them finish. Your hands start to turn red from the clapping. You start yelling the names that people have written on their own jerseys, constructing background stories for each of them. There’s Matt the programmer who has raised money on behalf of his sister with cancer. There’s Laura the paralegal who has lost 40 lbs in the last 18 months and is proving something to herself and her family. Tamikwa is running with her med school friends. Andy is a single dad with his son’s name on his jersey.
Your eyes widen and start to tear a bit. You think: These people are heroes! You make eye contact with one of them and you automatically yell, “You got this!” In that moment, they’re not just running for themselves. They’re running for you, for the people standing next to you, for everyone-- for all humans everywhere, ever.
I’ve come to find that almost everyone who has ever watched a marathon in person ends up feeling this for at least a moment or two. I’m talking about feeling a sense of awe in the face of other humans’ amazingness.
When Leaders Are In Awe of Their People
This is how great teachers see their students-- and it’s how great principals and department chairs see their teachers. Great leaders traffic in the greatness of OTHER people: they never forget that their most essential job is to uncover and develop it in their teams. Great leaders look for greatness in the people around them-- and, because they look for it, they find it.
As a school leader, it’s tempting-- hell, it can be fun-- to fantasize about hiring fresh runners in the race at your school. Some of your teachers are just plain tired and set in their ways, you can’t help but think. “If I just had some people with fresh legs and open minds, I could make this school really WORK,” you imagine.
But that’s the trap. This is a marathon you are all running every day-- and it wears everyone down at some point. You ever notice that everyone is tired at school most of the time? Your job as the leader is to help people find those wells of strength that even your people doubt that they have. Critically, you have to believe that strength is there, yourself.
Your most important job as a superintendent, principal, or a leader at a school is to attract, inspire, develop, and maintain great educators and their work. Point to a school that is really doing great work-- truly kicking butt and changing students’ lives-- and you will likely find at least one leader who is simply in awe of her educators.
Sure, she loves the students. But she bleeds for her teachers and staff.
She’s their biggest fan. She paints her face in her staff’s colors, even when it isn’t game day. She’s been collecting her players’ trading cards since day one. She keeps and treasures the statistics of her team’s forgotten efforts and unsung wins. And she’s there at mile 18, standing next to a table covered with cups of water that she set up with her own hands. She has proud tears streaming down her face and has a hoarse throat from yelling “YOU GOT THIS!” Her job is to be a super fan of her people and, by golly, they all know it.
You have to marry that faith in your teachers’ and administrators’ greatness with a desire to honestly see it and support it. And you gotta let ‘em know, over and over. THEY GOT THIS!
This is their race, coach. You aren’t running it for them. And you never can.
Haven’t Got Time To Read About A Dang Marathon? Just Read This:
Each person who reports to you at school is an amazing human-- just like each of the students are. Try to be in awe of your teachers. Pay attention to those little details that reveal how great your people are. Open yourself to how hard they are trying and you will become aware of talents and strengths you didn’t know they had. If they believe you really see greatness in them, they will run farther, faster, harder, and happier for you (and the school and the kids) than they ever thought they could.
- Pay warm attention to your teachers and administrators. Put your judgements aside whenever you can; your critiques often drown out your ability to notice the hard work your folks are doing.
- Be relentless in trying to find the majesty of your people's struggles. Never quit on looking for their skills and talents-- and use that to help them see it in themselves. Help convince them of how strong they are and can be. It's your most important job.
- Figure out how you can help THEM achieve what they are doing. Channel your inner JFK: ask not what your teachers can do for you; ask what you can do for your teachers.
Some of your teachers and fellow administrators are slackers and jerks. It’s true. There are folks who don’t want to walk 10 feet for you or the kids, let alone run a marathon. It can be hard to root for lazy, manipulative people. But even those folks can change for a champion. Try hard to see what’s great underneath all of that resistance and those mind games. You have to believe there is a great runner in there. You might be surprised to find a real star who has been hidden for years. Your belief in their greatness is the greatest thing you can give them.
"Be a Marathon Fan" is an excerpt from Mike Kleba and Dr. Ryan O'Hara's upcoming book "Otherfull: Powerful Leaders Work Through Others." Due out in early 2020, "Otherfull" is an earnest and irreverent collection of short and shareable essays about leadership, collaboration, efficiency, and authenticity.