President's Corner

Tin Man Leaders

by Mark T. Bielang

The economic and political realities of the past few years have strained schools and school system leaders like never before — and these trends are likely to continue.

However, sitting idly by and hoping the tide will change or letting the morning news shape our expectations and visions for the days ahead are strategies doomed for failure. Now is the time to create positive forward momentum. Now is the time to exhibit the courageous leadership Winston Churchill referred to when he said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”


Mark BielangMark T. Bielang

Like most of you, during my 15 years as a superintendent I’ve faced many challenging situations. Some situations worked in my favor, some conflicted with my goals and some seemed neutral. At times, circumstances allowed me to exert some influence, while other times they were beyond my control, so I had to resign myself to making the best of a bad situation.

Many challenges we face these days are further out of our range of influence than ever before, and therefore it requires greater courage to address them than ever before.The courageous leadership we must exhibit emanates from a true sense of vision and a commitment to that vision that transcends the roller-coaster ride of today’s volatile economy and partisan politics. It is this vision that pushes us through the fear that often precedes our discovery of courage and, in fact, catalyzes action.

Fear is nothing more than thinking about all of the bad possibilities and becoming paralyzed, unable to take action. Courage means thinking about all the great possibilities and then taking action to make those possibilities a reality.

Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was a courageous leader from whom we can learn valuable leadership lessons about vision. In 1914, Shackleton and 27 men under his command set sail aboard the Endurance in hopes of becoming the first explorers to cross the Antarctic continent from sea to sea via the South Pole.

During their two-year journey, the Endurance crew faced life-threatening situations, often with little time to recover between incidents. Their ship was frozen in the ice and subsequently crushed, yet they beat the odds and survived, thanks in large part to Shackleton’s courageous leadership.

As his damaged ship lay stranded in a pile of ice, Shackleton took five men and sailed almost 1,000 miles in an open boat to the island of South Georgia, off the southern tip of South America, to seek help. Then he journeyed back and saved the rest of his crew.

While he never reached the South Pole, Shackleton and his crew survived against seemingly impossible odds. Savvy leaders like Shackleton know that a clear vision, one bold enough to inspire and transform, is the true holy grail of leadership. It gives energy to those who embrace it and grows as more people share it. It’s incumbent on us, as school system leaders, to share and expand this energy so we create tipping points for change in our organizations.

Courageous leadership never has been more crucial than it is today. As leaders, we have unprecedented opportunities to tap the collective wisdom and guide committed action toward fulfilling our vision of a quality education for every student.

I am reminded of the lyrics of a song by the musical group America: “No, Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.” We all have at least an inner spark of courageous leadership, and we must be willing to unleash that spark and let it glow.

Mark Bielang is AASA president for 2009-10. E-mail: