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September 6, 2010

Dirt… An Essential to Real Leadership

by Chris Lindholm

As I left my last position as principal of a junior high, I was given a book from a teacher that was written by a member of his family – a very special gift from a "real deal" teacher who connects with kids and pushes many beyond their own expectations.  The book is called Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Workby John Cowan.  Now that I am half way through it, I feel the need to share a piece of the genuine wisdom offered in this small treasure of reflections.  The first of many very short essays/stories is called "Dirt."  It resonates deeply with me as I struggle to build relationships in a district with rich history – but one that is new to me and me new to them.  In my former position, the staff knew that I was a "real person" who wore a tool belt on weekends and loved working with power tools.  They knew that I swept halls and dug in the garbage when needed and mowed lawns if it had to be done.  They knew that I hung the cabinets in the teachers lounge myself, and they knew that I could handle difficult situations, parents, students, and realities of working in education.  Now new to a district in a district wide position… how do I build those relationships?  Here are a few excerpts from Cowan's first chapter:

I sit on a spot o dirt under a medium-sized tree, on the edge of a clearing, at the top of the hill overlooking the lake.  This spot of dirt is sacred…  I don't know who made it so, but I know that it is sacred, for after I sit here a while, I can remember who I am.  And see the world for what it is… pg. 1.

I once asked a senior officer of a major corporation how he was responding to the devastating problems the corporation faced.  "It's easy," he said, "we'll lose a couple of divisions and then we will be all right" pg. 1.

I do not think that two divisions meant to him a couple of thousand people.  I think that for him two divisions had become a series of numbers projected on a conference room screen… It is easy to forget the dirty consequences of decisions in rooms where the windows are sealed shut, the air-conditioning runs forever, and the ground is far below.  I think it was this distance that made him callous to the human effects of the corporation's financial problem and that helped cause the financial problems in the first place. pg. 2

I fear "clean."  I am wary of straight ties, polished smiles, tide rooms, immaculate resumes, and antiseptic press releases.  THey smell to me of artifice and danger.  I never completely trust anyone until they belch, swear, weep, or bleed.  If it lives, it's dirty.  Clean is a cover-up. pg. 2.

I wish all managers had their own plot of sacred dirt.  One they could sit on regularly, getting grass stains on their shorts, stray ants on their backs, and a little bark from the tree in their hair.A spot where if they sit for an hour or two, they can remember who they are and see the world for what it is.  pg. 2.

I don't think managers and executives would avoid the hard decisions… I applaud managers who take tough steps when tough steps need to be taken.  But I feel much safer if those actions are taken not by somebody who worships in the tower next to God, but by somebody who knows who he is and sees the world for what it is – someone who is accustomed to sitting in the dirt. pg. 3.

My sacred plot of dirt is remodeling my house, splitting wood, hunting, fishing, and grounding myself in some of the labor our ancestors had to tackle everyday for survival.  I take great pride in seeing a remodel project through from start to finish and tackling most or all of the work myself.  Many people make a living running wires, installing duct work, sweating pipes, roofing, sheet rocking, taping, or painting, and I can benefit from walking their walk on a regular basis.  And I do.  Most weekends you can find me building cabinets for the next room in the house, splitting wood, mudding/taping walls, or making plans for the next project on the house.  The old John Deere tractor I am teased about on occasion (that continues to need work) is less about needing a tractor and more about wanting a plot of dirt to sit on.  Some people run these to earn a buck.  Some keep them running to put food on the table.  I love the smell of cut grass and the reward of getting greasy and tackling a "rebuild" on the old tractor.  I need that plot of dirt to sit on and make no mistake, this leader sits there regularly. 

School starts tomorrow for our students.  I can't articulate how excited I am to have their energy and passion for the world back in our buildings.  I am struggling with not opening a building and executing carefully created plans for the re-opening of a school year with kids.  Another piece of dirt for me is lunch duty, bus duty, hall duty, and walking through classrooms making sure kids are learning.  My plan for tomorrow is to be in buildings seeing the magic and helping if I can.  Hopefully there will be a broom to push around, or a crowd to control, or directions to give, or a hand to hold…  Might even find a lawn mower to jump on…  I'll find a rag and tables to wipe at lunch time no doubt!  Hey – we all need our plot of dirt…

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