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Preventing the amnesia of leadership

6 min read


“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a person’s character give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

Most of us have all known people who dramatically changed when they reached a level of power and authority greater than where they once served. We observe them and wonder, “How can they forget what it was like to be in our shoes?” This is especially true in schools. Policy makers forget what’s like to be a superintendent; superintendents forget what it’s like to be a principal; principals forget what its like to be a teacher and teachers forget what it like to be a student. This amnesia of leadership has the potential for creating great discontent and frustration for those on the receiving end of words and actions of those people even one level of power and authority above them. Leaders with amnesia tend to make themselves the problem and focus of discussion; they divert time and attention away from mobilizing the community to solve real problems, address needs and achieve meaningful goals.

Although it can be easy to criticize those in leadership positions, there are many reasons why this amnesia of leadership happens to even the best people:

The belief that more power = more knowledge and/or higher is better than lower

There is an implicit assumption that leaders know more and know what’s best for those they lead. Many leaders think, “I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t know more than those below me.”

Schools are more autocratic/hierarchical than they are democratic

Our own experiences in school have taught us the more power=more knowledge framework.  This is the default model of leadership that most of us have absorbed and have unknowingly accepted as true.

Fear is effective is maintaining the status quo  

Those in leadership positions need the feedback of those below them to be effective; however, most followers are risk averse to speaking up or sharing feedback. This makes it difficult for leaders to change for the better. 

False dichotomy of tight control versus chaos

Many leaders are driven by the fear of losing control and the resulting state of chaos that they feel would inevitably occur. They also fear appearing weak and/or incompetent.

Pressure from above to produce

There is great pressure on school leaders to produce results. This fear of failing compels leaders to tighten control over those they lead. They have difficulty trusting others (who they perceive to know less than they do) to produce the necessary results.

Limited time for reflection

Those in leadership positions have little if any time to think or reflect on how their words and actions might be in conflict with their values and beliefs.

The tendency to find justification for mistreatment

Sadly, the traditional structure of school has taught us that some people deserve and, in fact, need mistreatment in order to learn. Since those in positions of authority know “more” those below them, they often rationalize mistreatment as a means to an end.

The higher up you go, the safer you can be

Sometimes the best escape from a bad boss (a leader who abuses power) is to become a boss. In environments where power is regularly used to manipulate and control others, people become more concerned about their own safety and less about the needs of others. People who seek leadership for their own safety and to feel powerful are the ones most prone to the amnesia of leadership.

Since in reality, every person is both a leader and a follower, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to improve our leadership by avoiding this amnesia.

Here is a five-point checklist to prepare for whatever leadership role you might have in the upcoming school year: 

1. Check under your hood. 

Examine your underlying assumptions about those you lead. Are they as motivated as you are or are they less motivated? How much trust can they be given? Do you believe you can learn from them? Assuming the positive about those you lead is the best way of bringing out the best in them.

2. Check your power source.

Leaders, who have had little or no legal authority, like Martin Luther King, know that the source of their power stems from their values, beliefs and moral principles. They lead by acting consistently with these values, beliefs and principles, and refrain from using fear as a way to control others.

3. Check your comfort index.

Effective leaders are comfortable with being human and vulnerable. They demonstrate that they are not better or know more that those they lead by being able to say: “I don’t know, what do you think?,” “I am sorry I made a mistake,” “This is challenging for me, too,” and “I need your help.” Leaders who have the strength to show their vulnerability only rise in the estimation of those they lead.

4. Check your alignment and balance.

Effective leaders give themselves and those they lead the permission to take care of themselves. They don’t create unreasonable demands that could compromise any aspect of a person’s well being. They help people live and work in alignment with their personal values and beliefs.

5. Check how you use your GPS.

Effective leaders invest time and energy in setting the right direction and don’t impose their plan for reaching a destination/goal. They create opportunities for people to understand the meaning and purpose of their work.  Effective leaders involve everyone in working out the details of the plan to achieve common goals.

This checklist can be a good way to avoid the amnesia of leadership but there is an even simpler yet more challenging way: treat those with less power than you, the way you would treat those who have more power than you. 

Leaders who “remember” what it was like to be a follower become more effective leaders and teachers. Students, especially ones at risk, learn more from teachers who remember what it was like to be a student. Effective leaders know that promoting leadership in others is one of the most effective ways of improving the learning of the entire community. 

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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