I regularly view the world through a lens of leadership. In the sports arena I observe coaches and general managers, evaluating their decisions and styles. In the political world, I ask, “Are the candidates getting their message out? Are they able to rally and inspire their staff to implement the leader’s vision?” In the business world, I ask “How do the barons of industry strike gold and how do some small businesses continue to grow in the midst of a tough economy?”
In the religious arena, I have long admired the work of Pope John Paul II who played a significant role in spreading freedom throughout Europe and Asia from a pontificate perch that rarely changes the world. Yet, it was the leadership of Oscar Romero, a relatively inconsequential El Salvador Bishop in the late 1970’s that got my attention as a Freshman in college. His reign as Bishop only lasted three years, but in that short time he inadvertently left us with many leadership lessons. I am reminded of his influence as we continue with the Arab Spring and various leaders rising up from the conflict.
FINDING YOUR VOICE
Romero was a reluctant leader. Although he had a passion for the Priesthood, he could not have foreseen the influence he would gain in the last few years of his life. He found his voice by reexamining his own values in the context of a horrific lack of human rights in his own country. His leadership was partly circumstantial but he rose to the challenge even without a traditional leadership skill set. He did not begin as a dynamic speaker or marketing mogul, but he led from his core. He knew what he believed and his actions came from his philosophy, not from a desire for fame or to please humans.
THE POWER OF COMMUNICATION
Every great leader finds a way to communicate the message. The poor of El Salvador did not have televisions but they could gather around a radio. Romero was able to use this medium to spread his liberation theology via the broadcast of a Mass and the homily contained within. After high profile murders of El Salvadorians he loved, he made a controversial decision on a specific Sunday to cancel all Masses in his country except for one large Mass on the steps of the Cathedral in which more than 100,000 faithful gathered. While this decision drew criticism, it helped to unite the people in the direction of justice and sent a strong message to those in power.
Every leader must show courage in the face of conflict. One must be ready to make unpopular decisions, risking old friendships or the ire of those with the ability to make a leader’s life uncomfortable. As a Principal, my daily walk through the building often includes smiles, laughs, and stories of the weekend. However, the good natured day sometimes includes tough exchanges that have to be had, even if they are respectful conversations. A visit from Union representatives might begin a chain of events resulting in a grievance if a request is denied. A phone call to a thin-skinned parent takes courage, preparation and a deep breath before dialing the number. Romero’s courage took a different tack. He was willing to die for his convictions knowing that he could never be the leader he was meant to be without extending his decision-making to the point of risking his life. Toward the end of his ministry he knew a violent death was just a matter of time.
Romero understood that the poor of El Salvador needed to participate in their transformation. The power of a leader rests squarely in his ability to motivate, persuade, and inspire. A solitary leader can only achieve temporary success. Romero’s influence rested in his ability to change citizen’s minds and hearts and instill courage at the same time. As he stated to his followers, “Aspire not to have more but to do more.” There are many school leaders with good intentions who take on too much responsibility for their staff. The non-collaborative Principals lead committees that should be led by teachers and begin initiatives themselves rather than build the power from within.
Ninety-five percent of Romero’s life was spent preparing for 5% spent in courageous leadership. Not many of us are called to risk our lives, but like Romero, if our calling is to be transformational, we may have to be transformed ourselves before we can be effective leaders.