I was struck while listening recently to a coach in the National Football League (NFL) mulishly defending his coaching style after criticism from his own head coach surfaced that he was too hard on his players. He was hired away from a perennial Super Bowl contender, where he was celebrated for his success. His pedigree earned him the job with a team that has not sniffed the Super Bowl in over thirty years. He reflexively responded to the criticism by describing what he explains is a process:"We all have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable." He includes himself in the process. He's authentic. It's not comfortable making people uncomfortable. It takes courage.
The coach put into simple terms a complex phenomenon. Among the theorists and researchers studying the concept is Brené Brown, whose rule of conduct "Courage over Comfort," has gained fame in education leadership and popular culture. Professor, author, and podcast host, whose web page motto is Keeping it awkward, brave, and kind, Brown's leadership advice has impacted education leadership from a research and practitioner perspective. Her work is woven into my leadership courses at CSU, Fullerton and my role as a Superintendent of Schools. Among the mountain of ideas Dr. Brown has illuminated that resonate in an education leader's sphere, which include vulnerability, imperfection, and worthiness, it is choosing courage over comfort that resonates most with me.
BEING AUTHENTIC IS A COLLECTION OF CONSCIOUS CHOICES The "Shield" as the NFL is unapologetically referred to, is famous for its culture of agreement and not deviating from the brand. Its institutional milieu is grounded in its reputation as a paragon of excellence (or at least unparalleled success in the world of sports). The honor code is greatly valued as evidence by coach-speak. In this case, the head coach who criticized his highly praised assistant did so by comparing him to another assistant coach on the same staff who has head coach experience in the NFL and takes a more forgiving approach to coaching. The message being that his new understudy needs to curb his intensity and adapt his style to his players, not the other way around.
The head coach was roundly criticized in the media for not supporting his assistant and subsequently walked those comments back. But the damage was done. What he asked of his assistant flies in the face of authenticity, which embraces who we are, not what we think we should be or what others think we should be. The assistant coach's title is Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach. He took the job to prove to the league (and maybe to himself) that he is worthy of a head coaching job. Up to this point, his success as an Offensive Coordinator has earned him multiple Super Bowl appearances, two championships and numerous head coach interviews, but not a head coaching job. It would be easy to understand why his confidence may be shaken or that he may be wrestling with self-doubt and whether or not he is worthy. Yet, he remains his authentic self.
THE SPACE BETWEEN STIMULUS AND RESPONSE The assistant coach lives comfortably in the space that Dr. Brown maintains exists between stimulus and response. Responding authentically is an act of courage. It may expose a vulnerability or even a blemish. It's value based. It's who you are, not what you believe people want you to be. It may even require an absolute act of resistance, as Dr. Brown argues is a choice people make which speaks to their worthiness and self-reliance. Leaders who want the best from their team model authenticity and demand it too. They also reward it. In this case, when the head coach criticized his assistant's coaching style, he was punishing it.
A PIVOT POINT TO REVOLVE AROUND
I'm centering authenticity as a pivot point to revolve leadership choices around in the context of leading in today's highly charged education environment where we have become pawns in a sociopolitical chess match. It's also a relevant perspective in the context of imposter syndrome, which is experiencing a revival, particularly at the executive level, in the midst of an exodus of chief executives over the last three years and a dearth of highly qualified replacements to succeed them. If leaders are not worthy or if they believe they are not worthy, politics, not authenticity, may be at the center of the decision-making process.
Mustering the strength to lead courageously characterizes today's work in education leadership, at practically all levels. Engage at the most authentic level and speak your truth. You will experience discomfort, but that's ok because you have to get uncomfortable before you get comfortable. Just ask the coach.