Learning to Lead by Nancy Mugele


“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.” — Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

I am a huge Brené Brown fan. From the moment I first heard her speak two years ago at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference, I have been hooked. Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation Brené Brown Endowed Chair of the Graduate College of Social Work, is the author of five #1 New York Times Best Sellers, and I have internalized all five. She has studied courage, vulnerability, and empathy for two decades and she shares it with an easy comfort.

At NAIS, she described earning her worst evaluations from students after a hurricane devastated Houston and she felt the university reopened too soon. Brown “was her worst self,” as she put it, because of “how I was showing up.” It was a powerful reminder that, as leaders and educators, we cannot bring our own personal issues into our work. This takes courage. And courage’s foundation is vulnerability. “We’re not wired for vulnerability but it is the birthplace of love, belonging, and joy,” Brown said. She closed with gratitude for the educators in the room. “Ten years from now in an interview, they will bring you up,” she said. “They’ll say they didn’t believe in themselves, and you changed that.”

In September 2017 I devoured Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. I wrote about it to parents of Kent School students and also in this column. “True belonging,” she wrote, “ is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

I love the book and quoted it a lot last academic year, as I constantly told students that I BELIEVEd in them and that they should BELIEVE in themselves. (My word for last academic year was BELIEVE, but that is another story.) Kelsy must have missed the column because she gave me the book as a Christmas gift two months ago. I was deeply touched. She selected the thoughtful gift because she knows I admire Brown and that I would really appreciate the topic. She does not know that now I have two copies – one at home and one in my office. Seems to be a pattern with books that inspire me!

When Brown’s latest, Dare to Lead, was published this past October, I did not immediately purchase it. I thought it might have a business bent because of its description: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work. But, lately, I have been thinking a lot about leadership, developing emerging leaders in the Kent School employee group and developing leadership in students. Why are some people compelled to lead? Are leaders born? Or, are they taught?

During DEARS (Drop Everything And Read Silently) at Kent School I have just finished Dare to Lead, based on Brown’s twenty years of research, and the past three years specifically conducted with leaders, change makers and culture shifters. The book is a must-read for business leaders, and educators.

In her book she claims that true leaders are people who hold themselves accountable for recognising the potential in people and ideas, and developing that potential. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is exactly what teachers do each and every day. Teachers dare to lead their classrooms and their students with empathy, courage and love. Teachers create a safe classroom culture where each student is heard, valued and respected. Teachers teach students how to lead with kindness and offer many opportunities for students to grow and shine.

Next week I will have the privilege to connect with several Kent School alumni in NYC and in Florida. All are entrepreneurs and leaders in business. I am looking forward to asking them what Kent School means to them and how the School prepared them for life.

I firmly believe that if we educate the minds, and also the hearts, of our students we will prepare them to be daring leaders who will possess the courage and empathy needed to lead lives of purpose in the global community beyond Kent School. I have watched several of our Student Government Association representatives learning to lead this year, and I am in awe.

Leadership can, and should, be learned.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, a member of the Board of Chesapeake Charities, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

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