Courageous Leadership Via Alan Blankstein

Failure is not an Option by Alan Blankstein

Chapter 2 Synopsis



Essential Learning:

Chapter 2 opens with the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. (p. 29):

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  Courage faces fear and thereby masters it; cowardice represses fear and is thereby is mastered by it.  We must constantly build dikes of courage to hole back the flood of fear.”

In offering this and four more quotes on courage to open the chapter, Alan M. Blankstein point out that, “Leaders across disciplines and throughout time have seen courage as the essential human virtue” (p. 29).  He suggests that great educators among us (teachers and administrators alike) use courage to regularly make sacrifices in efforts to enhance the lives of children.  Educators who do, have what he calls a “courageous leadership imperative (CLI)” which “is defined as acting in accordance with one’s own values, beliefs, and mission – even in the face of fear, potential losses, or failure” (p. 31).

In dealing with CLI Blankstein describes a few stories of leaders working with the HOPE foundation who have had to make some difficult changes in their organizations because of “who they are and what they value” with regard to “the young people whom they are charged to protect, nurture, and help develop into successful young men and women” (p. 31).  Chapter two deals with the development of that type of “courageous leadership” and the ability to use it in effecting positive change both “individually and organizationally” (p. 31).  Two points that I found to be extremely interesting in this section are that the word COURAGE comes from the root coueur, which means “heart” in French (p. 30) and that courage was traditionally a primary virtue developed in young Native American men, who were therefore referred to as “braves” (p. 30).


Essential Learning:

In this section Blankstein recalls a conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s assistant regarding “fear of failure” as it related to their “struggle against apartheid” (p. 31).  The idea that some people are able to muster courage to overcome what seem to be insurmountable challenges in extreme circumstances lends itself well to the question of how educational leaders can keep a steady and courageous course in working through the challenges we face.  Blankstein asks if we can look to these incredible people for guidance in dealing with our day-to-day challenges (p. 32).  In response to Blanksteins inquiry the Archbishop’s assistant commented that in part, they looked toward developed nations for inspiration, and that they “never considered defeat” (p. 32).


Essential Learning:

This section suggests that courage can be developed, and that it should be utilized not only in situations of extreme fear, but that it can be useful in working through the moments of our daily lives.  The test, which is admittedly not “scientifically administered,” is meant to “provide an interesting glimpse into the nature of courage and what evokes that virtue” (p. 33).  Basically, when asked under what circumstances they would rush into a burning building, most educational leaders surveyed responded that they would go in only if their own children were in danger.

Some responded that they would go in to save strangers, and about 25% said that they would go in to save children besides their own (p. 33).  Also, those surveyed had all kinds of questions about the scenarios involving strangers, both adults and children, but no questions about the scenario where their own children may have been in danger.  Those results indicate that people exercise courage when they can identify and care about the purpose for that courage.  To the point of developing a “courageous leadership imperative,” A quote from Michael Fullen suggests that educational leaders “must pay close attention to whether or not they are generating passion, purpose, and energy…on the part of principals and teachers” (p. 33).  “The need to act can be more compelling than the fear of action, its consequences, or possible failure” (p. 33).


Essential Learning:

Referencing Steven Covey and siting research on the success of highly reliable organizations (HROs), Blankstein points out that when leaders “begin with the end in mind” and are able to foster a core belief that success is not only necessary, but also that it is inevitable, their organizations are much more likely to experience that prescribed success (pp. 33-34).  HROs are organizations that are responsible for essential needs like electrical power, clean water, and air traffic control (p. 34).  The HRO construct includes the following three principles as quoted from page 34:

  • The central goals are clear and widely shared.
  • All staff in HROs share a belief that success is critical and that failure to achieve core tasks would be absolutely disastrous.
  • HROs build interdependence among all staff. (Rossi & Stringfield, 1997, pp. 6-7)

There is evidence to suggest a “strong likelihood that what was learned from HROs can be applied to work in schools” (p. 34).   More research found that school administers who lead in such ways have positive results, above and beyond the results of those who don’t (p. 34).  In those organizations with a high degree of success, “setbacks along the way are rapidly turned into learning experiences that fuel advances toward future success” (p. 34).


Essential Learning:

Blankstein refers to the critical learning initiative (CLI) as the sum of five axioms listed in this section (p. 36):

  1. Begin With Your Core
  2. Create Organizational Meaning
  3. Maintain Consistency and Clarity of Purpose
  4. Confront the Data and Your Fears
  5. Build Sustainable Relationships


“The core is defined here as the intersection of one’s purpose, values, and intention” (p. 36).  The suggestion is that great leadership should start with the core in mind.  One of the challenges of this type leadership is that educational leaders have so many people and their “cores” to account for.  At any given moment, some members of the community are undoubtedly concerned, and sometimes even unhappy about leadership decisions.  The question becomes, how do you balance the diverse needs of parents and other community members while staying true to your own core? (p. 37).  Understandably, identifying and committing to one’s core is challenging in such a demanding climate.  Blankstein points out that this task is “rarely undertaken” and lists the following reasons why (pp. 37-38):

  1. “There is too little time…”
  2. “There is the impression that ‘self-discovery’ is soft…”
  3. “Acting on aspirations and ideals can be painful.”
  4. “Leadership is a lonely role to begin with.”
  5. Western societies seem to be lacking in “mentors, , spiritual guides, elders, and others who systematically assist people in self-development and self-discovery.”

Following the list comes a series of activities that can help to draw out the core values of both individuals and organizations.  The activities that are suggested for individuals involve asking one’s self a series of questions about professional decision making and direction, values, purpose, and intentions.  The activity suggested for discovering a common set of core values revolves around story telling and deciding what each person’s story indicates about his/her core.  Pointedly, Blankstein writes that, “…leaders with the greatest credibility and moral sway know who they are” (p. 40).


In a business of data driven decision-making, educational leaders need to take time to find and communicate meaning to teachers, students, parents, and all stakeholders in the school community.  Regular challenges, from low scores to budget cuts, should be used as meaningful reform opportunities rather than proof of failure.  Effective, courageous, authentic, value driven leaders guide their communities in taking action that builds strength and fosters hope.  “One way to create organizational meaning is through reframing” (p. 41).


There is a trend in education to constantly be searching for the latest and greatest, while abandoning current practices, sometimes before figuring out whether or not they are working well.  Constant change can be difficult and “demoralizing to and overburdened staff” (p. 42).  Clarity of purpose can help educators, who have too much on their plate to begin with, feel some relief and stability, and, it can lead “to greater success within those areas of focus” (p. 43).  The following are five suggestions for maintaining focus as listed on pages 43 and 44:

  1. Be fanatical about the positives of a project.
  2. Systematically drop what should not be pursued.
  3. Provide a sense of urgency to the area of desired focus.
  4. Provide continuous feedback using data.
  5. When necessary, stretch out timelines to meet the goal.


It is sometimes easier to deny problems that exist in educational organizations than to confront them head on.  Ironically, it is that confrontation along with thoughtful planning that can make the changes necessary for positive growth. Two real world situations in which disastrous results that might have been related to such denials are sited in this section:  The SARS outbreak of the early 21st century and the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia (p. 44).  Education only improves when teachers and administrators look closely at data to examine places in which they can improve.


Referring back to the “test of courage” that was addressed earlier in the chapter, Blankstein points out that saving children from potential danger is just as morally important whether they are your own or not, but that the relationship parents have with their own children provides greater motivation for running into a burning building (p. 45).  Similarly, building sustainable relationships within an educational community promotes real compassion with regard to learning and growth.  People who have authentic and meaningful relationships with one another are willing to work hard in an effort to help one another succeed.  Blankstein asserts that relationships are the backbone for all of the other work done by effective courageous leaders (p. 46).


Essential Learning:

Good Judgment from leadership is essential to successful schools, however, it is important that the judgment is coupled with an understanding of, and a commitment to “core purpose, values, and intention” (p. 47).  When school communities are governed by a courageous leadership imperative, direction is clear and the work that needs to be done is better understood and undertaken by everyone involved.


  • “Leaders across disciplines and throughout time have seen courage as the essential human virtue” (p. 29).
  • “The need to act can be more compelling than the fear of action, its consequences, or possible failure” (p. 33).
  • “The link between success in a given endeavor and our belief in our ability to succeed is well established” (p. 33).
  • “Clarifying one’s core as a person and a leader is perhaps the most difficult and most fundamental of all acts” (p. 37).
  • “…leaders with the greatest credibility and moral sway know who they are.  Their purpose, values, and intentions relative to their work are aligned” (p. 40).
  • “The drive to create meaning guides the creation and communication of deeper meaning in the lives of all stakeholders, which in turn unleashes energy toward substantive school improvement” (p. 40).
  • “Effective leaders help their school community succeed by first personally defining their core, making meaning for their organization around core values and core purpose, and continually clarifying and focusing on priorities that are aligned with that purpose” (p. 44).
  • “Relationships support a leader in taking the risk to act from his or her core to create organizational meaning” (p. 46).


I am constantly talking with colleagues who tell me that they are thrilled with the multiple opportunities for personal and professional growth offered by their districts, but that at times they feel as though they’re working on too many developmental initiatives to fully be able to take advantage of any given one.  Trying to process and implement all of the information garnered from the myriad of workshops they are privileged to be able to attend is a challenge, and many have expressed that sometimes they feel as though they’re scrambling to stay on top of , and effective implement each.  It gives makes me wonder what it would be like if teachers were given the chance to choose between these wonderful opportunities their districts offer through PD.  Maybe they could be directly connected to individual learning goals or student data.  What could we accomplish if all of the resources being poured into the many initiatives we’re involved in were put toward a focused effort with one…or even one at a time?

I truly appreciate that my district has done a nice job of allowing me to take the lead with regard to my learning and growth.  The BPS core values are clear to me, and I have many opportunities to make connections and match them up to mine.  Gathering resources and developing learning plans to meet each other’s needs and those of our community has been a very collaborative process on multiple levels.  The colleagues I refer to above do express value in the opportunities they have; in fact, they tell me that they enjoy the excitement and challenge of the fast paced work involved in learning many things simultaneously.  I simply wonder if a more focused, one step at a time, sustained approach might be more effective in the long run.  I wonder if the path to student achievement would be enriched if more districts would consider the type of courageous, connected, and collaborative leadership that Blankstein suggest in this chapter.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>