Pivot Points and the Legacy of Leadership
As superintendents, we must recognize the defining moments for standing up for our beliefs in public schooling
BY STEPHEN JOEL/School Administrator, March 2018

Steve Joel has served since 2010 as the superintendent of the Lincoln Public Schools.
I have the best job in America.

Serving as the superintendent of an urban school district in the Midwest, I admit my work is filled continuously with unexpected twists and turns. They arrive daily. Yet the professional and personal rewards are worth it because I believe in what I do.

I am sustained by a conviction that public education is the backbone of our democracy. My job provides an opportunity to make a difference on a human level. I have the chance to change the world, one student at a time.

Nonetheless, I can assure you it takes more than a wonderful philosophy to become a good organizational leader or to create a legacy of leadership for those who will follow us. In truth, one’s leadership legacy is built upon how we handle those twists and turns in the road — that is, how we handle the unexpected scenarios of our job.

I believe excellence in leadership comes with the understanding that we not only learn to survive unanticipated detours, but that we learn to take advantage of these moments. The very best leaders recognize these “pivot points” as opportunities to transcend, rise above, conquer and walk away stronger and wiser.

Career Markers
What exactly are pivot points? They are events in our professional lives that dramatically alter our paths and journeys. They are events that — if we take advantage — can give us clear definition as a leader and as a school district, and that can result in words that define us for the rest of our lives.

They usually come upon us unannounced, and often we do not immediately recognize them as essential defining moments. They are generally painful and can bring the eyes of the community upon us — the eyes of the country sometimes, even the eyes of the world. But I contend we all have them, and the best leaders are prepared for them. What’s more, these moments can offer superintendents and education leaders a rare opportunity to stand up for what we believe in, to demonstrate strength and courage, to provide a reason for people to rally around our public schools.

We learn from surviving and transcending these hard moments — and we learn from watching others survive and transcend them too.

I can identify three major professional pivot points that deeply impacted my own leadership journey and changed the course of my career: the immigration raids in Grand Island, Neb.; a destructive fire at our school district’s headquarters in Lincoln, Neb.; and a community controversy that went viral around our school district’s professional training for gender identity.

Immigration Raids
When I was the superintendent of the 8,900-student Grand Island Public Schools, our community was targeted by federal law enforcement in 2006 for one of several immigration raids orchestrated around the country, controversial acts that ripped the guts out of the communities involved. The crisis brought our town in central Nebraska to the brink of breaking, with parents and relatives in despair, confusion and nasty division. We needed to get children back in school and return our community to some sense of normalcy.

We did. We transformed this pivot point into an opportunity to stand up for children and what we believed in. We declared we would keep kids safe and promised all the sup-port we could offer. We promised children safe shelter and we provided it.

Today, in hindsight, I will readily admit that the plan was risky. I wasn’t really sure it would work. Yet at the end of the day, we created tremendous community spirit, attracted news media attention and turned our experience into a national success story. My favorite moment: A child’s drawing that depicted me as a stick person with the words: “This is Dr. Joel. He keeps kids safe.”
A young student’s drawing of Steve Joel after the community of Grand Isle, Neb., was targeted in 2006 by federal law enforcement for one of several immigration raids around the country.

Not only did we prevail in this pivot point, this was a milestone moment for me when I fully recognized that strong leaders cannot be intimidated. Instead, we must pledge to do the right things for the right reasons. I have remembered that pledge throughout my career.

Headquarter Flames
At the end of my first year as superintendent for Lincoln Public Schools, a devastating Memorial Day fire in 2011 completely flattened the headquarters of the Lincoln Public Schools, wiping out precious paperwork and countless documents, shutting down our major communications channels and leaving hundreds of central-office administrators without a work home. The images of those flames and the aftermath will forever be etched in our memories, but so will our ability to rise from the ashes.

In the days and weeks that followed, we found temporary office space, held press conferences and accomplished miracles in moving forward with a sense of fiscal responsibility, open conversation and a commitment to living up to the community’s trust.

We promised to open school on time that fall, and we did. We enjoyed a tremendous swell of support from our citizens and stakeholders. And several years later, we re-opened an energy-efficient, purpose-designed district office structure better serving our schools and community.

As we returned to our new workplaces, I wrote a guest editorial for the local newspaper that summarized the power in this particular pivot point: “Like so many major events in our lives, we will always recall that date in time. … But we are stronger today than ever before as we are reunited once again — and anticipate our continued efforts to provide the best education for the young people of Lincoln.”

Gender-Related Training
Several years after the fire, as our school district rolled out necessary professional training for gender identification — specifically related to transgender students — confusion over a staff handout exploded into a community controversy that went viral overnight.

Falsely accused of banning terms such as “boys and girls,” our school district made international news (we hit the BBC), fielded thousands of hate e-mails and phone calls, and faced stalkers and heightened security needs.

We stood tall. We stressed that inclusive classrooms must reflect the changing community and world in which we live, that it was our responsibility to educate students for the diverse and complex world that awaits them, that we must embrace these imperative values and virtues of a public education system. Again, at the end of the day, we were stronger for having survived — with the community squarely behind us, joining us in our new rallying cry of “All means all.”

Creating Capital
When I look back on these three fundamental pivot points, I recognize a fundamental truth: These kinds of success stories do not happen by accident. They come about because, as superintendents, we have created the necessary political capital to survive and because we have created the foundation to make good things possible.

My advice, as a public education leader for 32 years, for how to take advantage of pivot points:

» Surround yourself with winners who complement your strengths and weaknesses. Know that casualties are inherent with new positions, because good leaders need to build high-performing teams that understand what it means to be truly transformational.

» Develop high-quality relationships throughout the community by genuinely getting to know individuals.

» Work with board of education members equally and strive to know them as well as you know your team.

 Be quick to bestow credit and to accept blame.

» Be a visible and transparent leader.

» Leave your ego at the door and take care of people on your way up the ladder.

» Mentor others through coaching and guiding.

» Know when to leave.

Inescapable Challenges
Public education leaders face a brutal landscape these days. Professional challenges come in the form of continuous funding shortages and social upheaval, critical media attention and quick-fire social media, cyclical board elections and uncertain government. There also are the inescapable personal challenges — the neglect of life balance and failure to renew and reinvent ourselves.

This problematic environment makes it even more essential to turn the tide by taking advantage of pivot points.

When I was growing up, as the son of a cop and always the youngest and smallest kid in an Italian neighborhood of New York, I was bullied a lot. But my father taught me courage and resiliency. He told me when I was knocked down, I needed to stand up and never let anyone see the fear in my eyes. He taught me when people are challenged the most, that’s when they dig the deepest and can shine the brightest.

Our greatest legacy is not what occurs during our time, but what the organization does after we depart. When we are challenged in these pivot points of life, that’s our oppor-tunity to become true leaders and to sow the seeds of hope for the education leaders of the future. Millions of public school kids are depending on that.

STEVE JOEL is superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Neb. Twitter: @sjoel59