The Minnesota School Board Association held its annual leadership conference in Minneapolis last week. The conference provides school board members and superintendents an opportunity to expand both knowledge and skills through a variety of keynote speakers, roundtable discussions and breakout sessions. It is a valuable opportunity to “sharpen the saw.”
The keynote address, presented by Dr. Adolph Brown, was titled, Reflective Leaders are Effective Leaders. His address accomplished its intention by highlighting our predisposition for assumptions and judgment. The tactic he used was somewhat reminiscent of a Russian nesting doll.
As Dr. Brown was introduced, a nattily dressed man strode onto the stage. He said a few words and then broke into dance. I immediately thought he was surprisingly limber for a middle-aged college professor. After a few minutes, another younger-looking man wearing a long white smock and trendy pants walked onto the stage. His hair was tightly braided and stuck out all over. I am sure I was not alone wondering how he would be incorporated into Dr. Brown’s keynote. As it turned out, the younger-looking man was the real Dr. Adolph Brown. The first gentleman turned out to be his godson who has been on tour with some big names in the music industry, which explained the dancing skills.
It wasn’t the last surprise. Near the end of the address, Dr. Brown removed a wig, the long white smock and the hip hop pants to reveal a middle-aged man wearing a black shirt and slacks. My mind had now been fooled twice. My eyes took in the visual cues and my brain sprinted ahead with a laundry list of assumptions about people. Sometimes those assumptions match reality. Sometimes they don’t.
Dr. Brown invited us to look in the mirror. Really look in the mirror. What do we see? What baggage do we carry that keeps us from recognizing our own unique value and reaching our full potential? What baggage do we carry that keeps us from seeing the unique value and potential in others?
I read a version of this allegory many years ago.
A couple in their mid-forties were moving to a new community. They pulled into a gas station at the edge of town and struck up a conversation with the attendant. He was an older gentleman whose face was lined with the wrinkles of age, experience and wisdom. The couple asked, “We are new to town and we are wondering what kind of people live in this community?” The attendant thought for a minute and replied, “What kind of people lived in your last community?” The couple replied, “They were selfish, inconsiderate, judgmental and abrasive.” The attendant nodded slowly and said, “You will find the people to be the same here.”
A couple days later, another couple new to the area drove into that very same station. They met the gas station attendant with a smile and noted the beautiful sunny sky and warm weather. They proceeded to ask, “Being new to town, what are the people like in this community?” The attendant responded, “What were the people like in your last community?” They didn’t even blink an eye before saying, “They were kind, generous, forgiving and compassionate!” The attendant nodded slowly and said, “You will find the people to be the same here.”
We tend to see what we go looking for. And what we go looking for is usually tinted with the same lens through which we see ourselves. It is my hope that we may each strive to live a life recognizing our own unique gifts and values and that this lens allows us to see the same in others.