weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
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Puffs!

A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

I ran a marathon yesterday!

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Connie, the septuagenarian marathoner, in the hotel exercise room, and how she inspired me to (maybe) run a marathon this year. So I thought I should check back in and let you know that I did, indeed, run the inaugural Silo District Marathon yesterday morning in Waco, Texas. Last fall, I wrote about my visit to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire (a word I’m using in a descriptive, not a pejorative, sense); this race event, which also included a half-marathon and a 5K, was their brainchild, which means that it was both warmly hospitable and efficiently organized. This was my first marathon, but it was Chip’s first road race ever, so I kind of expected to be able to keep pace with Chip (who is also about 10 years older than I am), but I was wrong–he left me in the Texas dust. So did Clint Harp (Fixer Upper‘s go-to carpenter and furniture designer), who was the team captain of the half-marathon. He, along with a lot of the other half-marathoners, passed me even though their race started about half an hour later than my race, which didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The competitive, Gryffindor part of me was merciless during the part of the race when we were sharing the course with those fast half-marathoners; I couldn’t believe how slow I was, but then again I could believe it because I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t rested or eaten properly the day before…I’ve posted a number of times (see here and here) about how hard I can be on myself, especially in physical competitions, so you get the idea. But then, around mile 10, the hard-working, long-suffering Hufflepuff part of me kicked in, and I turned my mental energy to forcing myself to keep going–even if that meant limping, as it did toward the end of the race. (I didn’t injure myself, unless you count severe chafing between my legs, to the point of bleeding–I was just really sore.)

Because that’s really what a marathon is about; forcing yourself to go on. With shorter races, things like technique matter a lot more. A marathon is about sheer endurance, which I like to think I have a lot of. (I’ve written about that too.) The race materials from this weekend kept referring to us as athletes, but I don’t think it requires that much athleticism to finish a marathon (at least not the way I finished it–barely dragging myself across the finish line); it just requires a willingness to endure pain. I’m not sure what that says about me. I think it may mean that I have a psychological problem. But I’m weirdly proud of it.

Today my quads are really hurting–it hurts for me to go down stairs (going up is okay) and to lower myself into a chair. And when I’ve been sitting for a while, I get stiff and have trouble getting back up. And I need to go home and put some antibiotic cream and bandages on that nasty chafing. Notes for next time, and notes to anyone who’s thinking about running a marathon: Seriously consider wearing pants or longer shorts, even if it’s hot. And maybe don’t run a marathon in Texas, where 75 degrees doesn’t mean a beautiful, balmy day like it does here in Virginia. 75 feels a lot hotter in Texas, where they seem not to know about clouds or shade. And also, make sure you train for an actual marathon–I meant to do that, but the longest training run I had made time for was 11 miles.

My most important piece of advice: If I can run a marathon, you probably can too. Chip Gaines would probably say the same thing about himself, though I’ll never underestimate him again! Our race t-shirts and the banner over the marathon starting line said, “You were built for this.” There’s obviously a home renovation pun in there, as well as a Purpose-Driven Life-style spiritual meaning. But when I think of people who are “built” for running marathons, I think of tall, willowy people; I don’t think of people who look like me (i.e. a hobbit). So I take inspiration from that as well–you may not think so to look at me, but I was, apparently, built to run a marathon.

my leadership role model

Today’s post is about a person who appears in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, so to start us off I thought I’d share something fun I discovered this morning. I am reading the Bible chronologically, and this morning my reading was 1 Samuel 4-8. Did you know that the names of two famous characters from 19th-century fiction appear in these chapters? They are Ichabod (as in Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and Ebenezer (as in Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). I think these characters’ creators chose the names because they sound funny and quaint to modern English-speakers and may invoke a harsh brand of Protestantism, not, or not primarily, because of their Hebrew meanings: Ichabod means “inglorious” and was the name of a baby (poor little guy!) born just after the Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines, and Ebenezer means “thus far has the LORD helped us” and was the name of a memorial stone set up to commemorate a victory against the Philistines.  (I have written a post about Ebenezer Scrooge’s association with memorial stones–I’m not sure if this was deliberate or unconscious on Dickens’s part.) Anyway, there’s your fun fact for the day.

Later in 1 Samuel, we meet the young man who will become Israel’s greatest king, David. Many of the people who appear in the pages of the Old Testament are roughly sketched and hard to relate to, but David is what we would call in literature a well-developed character. Not only from the historical accounts but also from the many psalms he wrote, we learn about David’s bold frankness, his concern for those under his care (first his father’s sheep, then the rebels who fought under him during his outlaw years, then finally his subjects and his many children), and his ardent love for God. David’s emotions are always near the surface in these accounts–he has a warm heart and, often, a hot head. As an F (feeling) on the Myers-Briggs scale, I can relate to David.

David made many mistakes, some ugly and inexcusable (murder by proxy, adultery, bad parenting). But the reason he’s my leadership role model is that, throughout his life, David remained teachable and open to correction. A prophet named Nathan keeps showing up in the accounts of David’s kingship, and nearly every time we see him, he’s calling out David for some sin. The fact that David not only tolerates but welcomes Nathan’s correction is amazing considering what David’s descendants, the increasingly bad kings, will do to prophets who tell them the truth (e.g. throw them in a pit, kill them). David could say, “I’m the king; I can do whatever I want!” Instead, he responds to Nathan’s truth-telling, not with a political “Hmm, I’ll consider that,” but with repentance, confessing his sin against God and immediately doing what he can to restore fellowship with God and the people he has wronged.

One of my greatest leadership fears is becoming the person who is too imperious or even just too sensitive to be corrected–the person everyone else is reluctant to confront. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I’m thankful that I work with people who kindly tell me about things I need to do better, and I hope I will always have people like this.

Another thing I love about David is that once he’s confessed his sin, he doesn’t wallow in it. Once fellowship has been restored with God (see Psalm 51, a painful and beautiful expression of this process), David is able to move on with joy and confidence that he’s been forgiven. Of course, his actions have consequences, and he recognizes this and grieves the harm he’s done to others. But this is another necessary leadership quality: the ability to walk forward.

I’d love to hear about your leadership role models!

safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. 🙂

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!

Becky and Patrick, our Hufflepuff correspondants

When I first pitched the idea of a Hufflepuff leadership blog to you, I mentioned that I would sometimes refer to two characters I had created: Becky Weasley, a Hufflepuff alum, and her nephew Patrick Weasley, a seventh-year student and Hufflepuff prefect. I haven’t ended up using this device much, but I have given these characters a great deal of thought, so today I’m going to tell you more about them. I would love your feedback about these characters and whether you think they would be useful and likable guides on your leadership journey.

Rebecca, or Becky, Weasley was Rebecca Durbyfield before she married Charlie. (“Rebecca Durbyfield” is sort of a pun on my own name: Rebecca is my middle name, and Durbyfield is the last name of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s novel.) She has one American parent and lived in the United States until she was old enough to go to Hogwarts, where she had always dreamed of attending. On her American side, she is the granddaughter of Queenie and Jacob from Fantastic Beasts, and the fact that her grandfather was a very famous baker gives her a lot of cred with her mother-in-law, Molly Weasley. At Hogwarts, Becky was in Hufflepuff but was best friends with Penelope Clearwater; they were part of a glorified study group called the Tri-House Transfiguration League that also included people you may have heard of such as Cedric Diggory, Oliver Wood (before he got kicked out of the club because he focused too much on Quidditch–not Becky’s idea), and Percy Weasley, another good friend of Becky’s. Becky always had a crush on Percy’s older brother Bill; she barely thought of the sporty second brother Charlie until years later when she met him at a wedding, realized he was a really great guy, and eventually married him. Now Charlie is the Hogwarts gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures professor, and Becky teaches Muggle Studies, which she knows a lot about from her grandpa Jacob. The Professor Weasleys’ cottage is a welcoming place for students who want to get away from the noise and drama of the castle and have a nice homecooked meal.

One such student is their nephew, Patrick, who is the only child of Percy and Penelope. (Of COURSE they ended up together, though I also have a whole story about their ugly seventh-year breakup and post-Hogwarts estrangement.) Patrick was a shy child who was overwhelmed by all his cousins and confused by his parents, who tried very hard to be good parents but couldn’t help being a little overbearing. When he got sorted into Hufflepuff, everyone was surprised (since he was the first Weasley in that house) but agreed it was for the best, since Percy and Penelope would never have stopped arguing if he’d been sorted into either Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. His own experiences during his first few years at school with homesickness and bullying made him want to help younger students, and his academic achievements helped him become confident, so he was happy to take on the role of prefect in his fifth year. Today, he is one of the most popular prefects in recent Hogwarts history, due no doubt to his empathetic approach. One tradition that Patrick and his prefectural partners have initiated is the weekly “Hufflepuff History” discussions, in which students learn about notable people from their house and begin to see themselves as part of this legacy. (Patrick’s Aunt Becky has helped to lead some of these discussions.) Patrick also likes to cook and is particularly good at making piecrusts, but his career goal is to work in the education department of the Ministry of Magic, with the platform of making school a safer and friendlier place for students.