All too often, school leaders make the same mistake. Faced with a challenging question in a parent town hall, or staff meeting, or even in an individual conversation, they immediately jump to their own defence by trying to "set the person straight", or portraying them as distorting the facts, or pointing the finger elsewhere. This never works as a strategy. Like with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, the "unintended" outcomes of taking this route are almost always the same:
1. The questioner feels put down and disrespected. Even if they are right, they feel embarrassed and centred out in front of their peers;
2. There is an "us and them" or win/lose conflict created where none needs to exist;
3. The issue becomes politicized, positions harden, and a meeting of minds becomes much more difficult if not impossible;
4. The incident stifles dissent and discourages honest and open dialogue. Why speak truth (as you see it) to power if you are just going to get dressed down; and,
5. The leader misses the opportunity both to directly engage on an issue which may fester into a larger problem, and to receive some direct feedback.
Although it can often be challenging in the moment, school leaders should welcome every opportunity to make their case in a public forum. If they are unable to articulate their position effectively enough to convince their audience, then it is usually a good time to reflect to be certain that what they are saying is actually accurate, or whether there is a need to revisit an issue to see if there is a better way forward.
And, while there is no question that in most cases a Head or Senior Administrator can use the status of their position to bully questioners into silence, it is a pyrrhic victory. A small rhetorical win in the moment can do long term damage to their relationships and credibility.
An effective leader doesn't describe their critics as "wacky" (as Trump did this week). Whether right or wrong, leaders should embrace the chance to engage in positive thoughtful dialogue with their stakeholders. It is always the best way to go.