A Cause for Holiday Cheer: An Uncommon Act of Leadership
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
Leadership demands that our leaders model the behaviors that we wish to see in others. Lately, however, the most conspicuous actions by our most prominent leaders seem to be followed by a disappointing array of #Hashtags, front cover exposes or overly scripted gestures. But right on cue for the yuletide spirit was an uncommon act of civic leadership that brought me and a gymnasium full of parents to our feet. It restored, at just the right time of year, my belief in individual acts of authentic leadership.
Dr. Rene Rovtar, the superintendent for the Montville, New Jersey school system, made a special appearance at a local elementary school’s holiday concert. This sounds pedestrian and well within her normal scope of administrative duties. But rather than attend as a school official, she joined the rows and columns full of children in the beginner string orchestra section. Sounds like a kitschy holiday stunt; but it was not. What makes this story compelling is that Dr. Rovtar is in fact a beginning violin student. And this was her first public recital, right alongside the very same children that she had been training with on a weekly basis since the start of the school year. No spotlight. No ceremony. Just one of the orchestral crowd, trying to remember her finger positioning and doing her best to play this plucky instrument.
Teresa Amabile, a renowned leadership researcher, has pointed to the pivotal role of leaders in inspiring and courting creativity in their organizations. Even the “smallest actions pack a wallop because what you say and do is intensely observed by people.” At the beginning of the school year, Dr. Rovtar visited the Woodmont elementary school and was half-jokingly invited to join the orchestra as a violinist. Dr. Rovtar, who had never played the violin, took the challenge seriously and accepted. “It’s been phenomenal. Each week I sit side-by-side with the students, sharing a music stand together.” This simple act packed a wallop by underscoring three very important leadership lessons that ought to be shared, especially at this time of year.
Allowing Vulnerability: The human condition is inherently fragile, no matter how hard we work try to disguise this fact. It’s not easy to embrace our imperfections and put them on public display. In the words of Brene Brown, a creativity researcher, “vulnerability is the willingness to show up when we can't control the outcome.” Stepping on stage, as both a superintendent and student, showed vulnerability and bravery to face an uncertain outcome.
Modeling a Beginner’s Mindset: Expertise is a double-edged sword. We can be trapped by our certainties and resist to see things in new ways. Taking a beginner’s mindset pushes us to view life through the eyes of the uninitiated. Stepping on stage as a beginning violin player, especially when viewed as an authority figure, reminded us of the importance of maintaining our empathy and humility. Without it, a leader loses touch with the people they lead.
Instilling Trust and Safety: It is one thing to tell your students that you were just like them once. It is another thing to sit side-by-side with your students, violin bow in-hand and at the ready. By becoming a part of the orchestra, Dr. Rovtar signaled trust and safety to the students, faculty and the parents. “Having a 4th grader lean over to me and tell me it’s OK to be nervous was the most wonderful thing. The kids perceived me as a peer and trusted me.”
Dr. Rovtar showed that leadership is not a rank, role or position…it is a choice. These choices reaffirm the importance of individual actions and behaviors. They remind us of why we pay homage to our leaders. Whether it is a leader of a school district or a Fortune 100 company, we look to these people for inspiration and hope that we will see in them what we wish to see in the world. With the holiday season upon us and a fresh batch of New Year’s resolutions lying in wait, I hope that more leaders will resolve to follow Dr. Rovtar’s example. And I also hope that one of Dr. Rovtar’s resolutions is to join next spring’s school concert.