Monday, January 13, 2014

Being Right Isn't the Most Important Thing: Getting Leadership Right

"One of the biggest problems we encounter is verbal communication that is misunderstood or unskillfully handled." Sharon Salzberg & Robert Thurman, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier
It's Monday morning, and you're sitting at your desk. You get a call from your school receptionist that Ms. (You Insert the Name Here) has arrived in the office and she is agitated and angry, much like she usually is. Your receptionist informs you that she is upset once again about something that's happened to her daughter in the classroom. Upon hearing this news, you begin to tense up, as if ready for battle. You just didn't need to face this parent this morning. She has a habit of showing up when a thousand things are already on your calendar. You tell your receptionist that you'll be there in just a few minutes.

This scenario is common experience for any school administrator. Even when I was a teacher, there were those few parents I just hated to get a phone message in my box or an email requesting a meeting. I knew they were angry, and I knew they wanted a piece of me. They were generally unhappy with life and wanted to take it out on me and whoever else happens to be convenient. As Salzberg and Thurman point out, these moments are when our verbal communication can be easily misunderstood if we don't handle speaking and acting skillfully. In these crucial moments when others approach us armed and ready, it is crucial that we use the right speech.

According to Buddhist thinking, the criteria for determining what "right speech" is involves two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Is it useful? Notice that saying the right thing here involves both of these. What we say obviously must be true. Speaking falsehoods and untruths are never acceptable. But also notice that just because something is true that doesn't mean we have to say it. Take the parent scenario above. While the truth might be that the parent is being entirely unreasonable and a bully, it would not be considered skillful to state this truth directly. Just because something is true does not give us blanket permission to say it. What we need is sensitivity and discernment, according to Salzberg and Thurman.

How does this look in life and in our leadership in the school and classroom? We sometimes must recognize "being silent is sometimes better than speech that is not true or speech that is not useful."Speaking lies and deception are never successful in resolving issues. If untruths are used, once the truth is known, even if at a later date, the issue becomes even more complicated because now we have our own deception of others to deal with too. On the other hand, things that might be true, might also be best left unsaid because speaking them is not useful. Being insensitive and uncouth is rampant in American society today. Many, many government leaders seem to lack sensitivity. They speak what might be true, but is certainly not useful. Here are some excellent questions we can ask ourselves during these crucial moments when we're trying to decide what to say:

  • What actually matters the most at this moment? What do I care about more than anything else right now? Answering this question truthfully makes it very difficult to say what is unskillful. In the parent scenario earlier, it becomes immediately clear that neither the parent's obvious cantankerousness nor your aggravation are paramount. Determining what happened to the child that concerns the parent is most important. By refocusing out attention on what matters most we can set aside everything else.
  • When you find yourself in conflict, do you care more about being right or being happy? Often, we get so caught up in our own righteousness that we seem to forget that "being right" isn't the most important thing at a given moment. Sometimes parents or even students we deal with might be wrong, but our insistence of being right can only make things even more difficult. Sometimes we just have to let go of our wanting to be right in order to connect with others.
  • Can you step off your pedestal long enough to acknowledge that being right might not matter if it only prolongs or exacerbates the problems? The pedestal of righteousness many school leaders and even classroom teachers stand on is quite high. Again our insistence of being right is sometimes not useful in every situation, so we must let it go.
How you approach potential verbal confrontations with others is an excellent indicator of your own leadership ability. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs notoriously called things as he saw them. He was well-known by those he worked for, for stating the obvious and the truth no matter how hurtful or harmful it might be. His belittling of subordinates is legendary. Sure, he and his company were highly successful, and some others have argued that his "blunt and direct" way of speaking to others was the reason. I suspect it to be a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes, the important principle for leaders in schools and classrooms is to remember: "Being right isn't the most important thing."


  1. That is an application I had never thought of for "right speech." It is similar to the Rotary Four-Way Test:
    1. Is it the truth?
    2.Is it fair to all concerned?
    3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
    4.Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
    I think that with teaching 1,2, and 4 are all really important. But I think that the students education should come before better friendships between teachers and parents. Of course, the two could often go together.

    1. This is an interesting list. I would add that number 3 could perhaps better be written, "Will it build goodwill and better relationships?" The relationship between teacher and student does not have to be on the same level as friendship, but my experience has been students learn much better from teachers who care about them, for the most part.