What Would Atticus Do?

8th June 2020  |  by Greg

I recently reread my absolute favorite book—I must admit that I have many beloved titles, but this one reigns supreme as absolute favorite—To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. If you’ve read the book, you know that the characters are richly developed and positively endearing, that the main character, Atticus Finch, represents those qualities in human nature that we all wish more of the people around us possessed.

Atticus, a lawyer in 1930’s fictional Maycomb, Georgia, is intelligent and kind, scrupulous and genuine. He shows courage in stepping out to take the difficult but necessary action that others are too afraid (or too ignorant) to take. He leads with quiet dignity; he leads by example, both in his community and in rearing his children. He teaches his children to empathize with others and find the best qualities in them even when it is most challenging to do so.
In a particularly poignant scene, Atticus has been spit upon by a man angry at him for representing a black man in a rape trial. To his daughter, he says, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, 1960). Atticus could see that the man’s actions did not discount good qualities that he had hidden within; he chose, rather, to look more deeply and see that the man was acting only on what he knew and believed, that he was not inherently evil, that he was only as good as his circumstances and worldview allowed him to be. Every time I read the book, I take away something new, and this last time I was struck by just how powerful the combination of Atticus’s qualities could be if I were to apply them in my own leadership.

This year marks my seventh as a public school administrator. I spent five years as an Assistant Principal and am in my second year as Principal of the same building. I like to think of myself as a reflective practitioner—I analyze most aspects of my leadership to a fault, taking time to consider successes and tuck away ideas for growth weekly, if not daily. As with most people, though, I have a few of those hidden, pride-protected zones that are kept under lock and key, those stubborn areas where I’d rather not delve too deeply into my actions and motivations. In these particular areas, I just know I’m right, and if I should happen to discover that I’m not, my entire foundation may be rocked to the core.
One such area is my leadership when confronted with colleagues who do not share my vision, philosophy, or beliefs about education or what is best for students. Like all school leaders, I am confronted with those who make decisions that will obviously have adverse affects on the school environment if left unchallenged. I work with a number of other administrators and teachers on any given day, and many times these individuals do not act in a manner befitting a part of the team that I work to captain as we progress through each new school year.

So, how do my actions in handling these individuals measure up to that quintessential leader I mentioned earlier, Atticus Finch? I can say with confidence that in the past seven years I have displayed many of the qualities I most esteem in Atticus’s character. I have led by example, quietly doing what needed doing; I have been genuine and scrupulous in my leadership, inviting conflict only when it is best for kids. It can be argued that working successfully in my position with difficult relationships is one of the toughest tests of professionalism I have faced, and I’m mostly proud of my performance.
But what was it Atticus said to Scout about truly understanding a person? He said that to master this art, one must consider everything through the other person’s point of view. Do I stop in my daily reflections to think about the perspectives of those with whom I struggle? Do I consider the “why” of their actions or only their failure to act the way I believed they should? Do I “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it”? As it does with any failure, it hurts to admit how far I have fallen short in this particular skill.

Buckingham & Coffman (1999) offer up advice for managers that can greatly influence my response to disagreements with colleagues. They maintain that great managers know that “people don’t change much” and urge managers not to “waste time trying to put in what was left out” but to “try to draw out what was left in”, for “that is hard enough” (p. 57). I often spend more time trying to put into others what was left out and unwittingly discount much of what I should be working to draw out of them. Yes, at times those I find myself in opposition to truly need to be called to the carpet regarding a given issue, but does this mean they are completely without the talents to navigate the situation if led effectively? Of course not. It is easier to focus on what I find lacking in a colleague or his actions than it is to dig deep and capitalize on the strengths he undoubtedly has.
Have I missed key opportunities to provide even better leadership to staff and students because of my limited experience with human relations and the importance of honing in on the strengths of others? Buckingham & Coffman (1999) seemed to suggest so, when they stated, “Great managers look inward. They look inside the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivations of each person . . . these subtle differences guide them toward the right way to release each person’s unique talents into performance” (p. 141). If I had looked at the very different talents that my team members and I possessed, who knows what we could have accomplished together, beyond the great things that we each did individually?
Dwelling on the past won’t change it, but reflecting on it will almost certainly lead to my becoming a greater manager, one who doesn’t simply “get by” in tough professional relationships but learns to transcend differences in talent and style to raise organizations to the next level of success. I can move forward with a better toolbox for handling that next human relations hurdle that I will likely find just around the next turn. Maintaining my focus on the many accomplishments I have made in my first seven years of leadership, I plan to spend the remainder of my years engaging in what Buckingham & Coffman (1999) called the “conscious act” of “finding each person’s strengths and then focusing on those strengths” (p. 143). I think that’s what Atticus would do, and I can’t think of a better act to follow.
Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s
greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Columbus, OH: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

This is an older post piece by Maria, posted originally on her personal blog. I thought it was great introduction to her writing and her wisdom.

You can follow Maria on Twitter at www.twitter.com/drmariapeek

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