September 13, 2017 in Leadership

In the middle of Hurricane Irma passing directly over our little bungalow, I had a familiar feeling. It was a feeling that I’ve had many times as a school leader. You see, we have a big, beautiful oak tree in our backyard, and it’s a little too close to the house for comfort. It’s a little too close to our neighbors’ house for their comfort, too. In defense of the tree, it was there first. Both houses had recent additions which put the rooflines much closer to the tree. When we bought our bungalow, everyone raised concerns about the tree. There was almost complete agreement to take down this hundred year old oak. One voice of opposition spoke for the tree… that voice was mine. My gut said to bet on that tree, and I went all in. You can’t waffle on decisions like this.

We called in an arborist who raised concerns about old lightening damage to a section of the trunk. I argued that the imperfection makes the tree more beautiful. Another arborist said she wouldn’t even stand under that tree and suggested that we cut it down right away. She owned a tree removal business, which I argued was a conflict of interest. Finally, Daniel Barefoot came to inspect the tree. He quietly placed his hand on the trunk as if he was listening to it. He said that nobody really knows if or when a tree will fall. He pointed out the green leaves way up on the canopy as a promising sign. He suggested a good trim to thin it out and balance it. Finally, I had an ally in my quest to save the tree.

Over the two years we’ve lived here, the tree has come to life. The leaves are glossy green, and dozens of birds and squirrels inhabit the branches. But every time a big storm rolls in, I get a nagging feeling. What if I'm wrong? I fought for the tree and believed in it with no guarantee. I put all my chips down on that tree, and my family and neighbors reluctantly followed. If it falls, will they still trust me? Will I continue to trust my own intuition? So many times as a principal, I found myself in this same position. I had to make a decision, and there was no room for hesitation. I had to convince others to trust and follow me. Sometimes it was to bet on that kid or this new strategy. Sometimes it was a hiring decision or belief that a struggling teacher could grow. And though I hid it from everyone else, there was always a small voice questioning, “What if I’m wrong?”

I am happy to report that when the sun came up on Monday morning, after Irma roared through our town, that tree was standing tall. Only some sticks and moss had fallen to the ground. Many other trees in the neighborhood didn’t fare as well. Everyone on our street expressed disbelief. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t surprised. Daniel Barefoot was right; nobody really knows when a tree will fall. We don’t have crystal balls to guide our decision making. So, we have to decide. And when we do, we have to commit. We go all in. We don’t show fear, and we don’t look back. That’s what leadership and hurricanes require.

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