Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership response to the shocking deaths of 50 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques on Friday 15th March was deservedly praised at home and around the world. Her perception and sensitivity during the crisis and its aftermath underpinned how she chose to lead the nation through the darkest of tragedies. With empathy and calmness her leadership displayed to all that acceptance, inclusion and understanding must be the driving values in diverse communities, anywhere, any place, any time.
Leading in testing times
By her setting a new and better standard of political leadership, we might wonder what relevance this has for school leaders. I’ve been reflecting on this. Perhaps you have too? I believe the Prime Minister’s defining moment as a political leader, leading her country in grieving for and support of its Muslim community, provide important learnings and reminders about leadership for all leaders and in all contexts.
Here are some school leadership learnings and reminders I’d like to share with you. I invite your self-reflection.
Explicitly state what you value and why
Prime Minister Ardern’s uncompromising appeals for unity through respect and tolerance of diversity, exemplified in her emphatically stating “They are us” and “This is not who we are”, resonated throughout the country and internationally. During her visit to a Christchurch high school which had lost two students in the attack she called on the students to make New Zealand “a place where there is no tolerance for racism, no tolerance for violence –ever”.
Her use of language is intentional, dramatic, to the point, even confronting for some people who may have to learn to be more tolerant and inclusive. By her speaking with such clarity and firmness there’s no room for misunderstanding what this leader values and expects others to value. Racism is not acceptable, period. A unifying and universal standard for all has been explicitly stated, unequivocally.
For school leaders, the main message here is to be explicit about WHAT you value and WHY. You say what you value and don’t leave others to guess what’s in your head. You repeat it over and over again, at every opportunity, to keep reminding yourself, your teachers, students and school community what you value and why, and expect them in turn to value. It’s your constant and consistent call for a unified response to the school’s imperative values of acceptance, respect and tolerance of others. They are your non-negotiables, the explicit ‘ruler’ against which you will hold to account and judge yourself and others in both words and deeds, every day.
Lead through your example to others
During the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch carnage the Prime Minister publically respected and endorsed the country’s Muslim communities as “us”. Her participation in their grieving and empathy for their culture was exemplified in a number of ways. For example, she met them in their spaces; greeted them in their language; followed their protocols; wore a headscarf in Islamic centres. By strongly asserting the belonging of Muslim people in the wider community she led the way in promoting the acceptance and inclusion of all cultures and religions in New Zealand.
For school leaders, the main message here is to model and demonstrate empathy toward all cultures that constitute your school community. Actively learn about and from their cultures. For example, learn and speak their common greetings and their ways of greeting others when you meet students, their families, in school assemblies, ceremonies and at school community meetings. Identify leaders in their cultures, invite them to speak to teachers, students and families about their culture, and invite them to act as a go-between their community and the school. Meet ethnic groups in their spaces to better understand their cultures and ways to better engage the school in mutual educational interests and priorities. You lead inclusion by your intentional example to others in both words and deeds, every day.
Align your actions to shared values
In the days after the mosques attack Jacinda Ardern pledged her resolve to improve community protection and safety for our Muslim people and all New Zealanders. To deny publicity for hate criminals and their spread of racism she urged the media and commentators not to say or print the name of the alleged terrorist responsible for the mass killings. Nation-wide the media complied. She pledged to ban semi-automatic and assault weapons, unless for military use, through gun law reforms in 10 days. She did.
She held the big tech companies to account for live streaming the carnage and urged the international community to come together to fix what has gone wrong with the world-wide web. In response, several big companies immediately suspended their ads on social media until content moderation improved. She contacted and spoke to leaders of the tech giants, inviting them to work with her to find solutions. President Macron of France offered his support to co-lead a global response with her.
For school leaders, the main message here is to clearly align your intended actions to shared values when responding to what needs to change. In the Prime Minister’s example, she focussed on a few powerful actions she would take in response to the crisis. These actions resonated with the public because her concern was their concern. Her priority actions aren’t easy to do well. They require courage, time, dollars, the involvement and support from others to implement.
In school leadership this explicit alignment of shared values to intended actions, and being resolute that together we must and will create a better future for our school community, are the essential enablers to motivate and build the commitment of others if you want to make a difference.
Genuinely include others at defining times
The Prime Minister’s call for acceptance, inclusion, understanding and kindness went far and beyond. To uphold diversity means there are no bystanders. We all have a duty to act. In response, vigils were held in communities around the country. Huge floral tributes to the victims and their families appeared outside mosques in cities and towns. News presenters dressed in black, female presenters wore a black hijab. People did spontaneous and remarkable things – flowers, cards, letters of sympathy, hugs for Muslims, hugs for police guarding the mosques.
In Christchurch thousands of high school students held a vigil in Hagley Park opposite one of the attacked mosques, initiated and led by the head boy of a school that had lost two students. They expressed their resolve that hatred is not our way and a future commitment to their resolve.
For school leaders, the main message here is to enable others to express their feelings, have their say, and in the ways they choose. Opportunities for teachers, students and families to express their ideals and ideas at important times helps create a sense of community, that ‘we’re all in this together’ to get the best outcome for everyone. For example, when the school is developing a new strategic plan; needs to better respond to the community’s changing ethnic and cultural mix; faced with a unique event, challenge or opportunity.
Genuine inclusion and tolerance is displayed when school leaders invite and enable diverse stakeholder groups and cultures to play an active part at important times, in the ways they wish and choose rather than being told.
A leader’s way forward
Prime Minister Ardern’s lauded handling of the Christchurch crisis powerfully illustrates for us that a leader’s best way forward in defining times is to double-down on inclusive values and take decisive action aligned to those values. Not only in times of crisis but consistently, daily and always. It’s a cogent example and reminder to all leaders of change and improvement who want to make a difference.