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The Dichotomies of Courageous Leadership

Written by George Petrusma on May 31st, 2021

Do you ever go down memory lane to recall moments of learning in your leadership life?  Recently I recalled with humour my first attempt to treat two teachers exactly the same. 

After placing a note (yes, hand-written notes were a thing once upon a time!) in a teacher’s mailbox asking for a meeting the following day, the teacher said, “Don’t do that again without giving me warning of what the meeting is about. I spent the entire night worrying and did not sleep well at all.” Ok, note to self. 

Not long after that situation, I needed to speak with a different teacher about some feedback I had received and wanted to be sure that I had her side of the story. You guessed it. I loaded the note with as much information I could fit to ensure that she would not be wondering about the purpose of the meeting. The response that came the next day went something like this: “Don’t do that again. Next time, just give me notice for a meeting. I spent the entire night stewing about the details you shared with me and could not sleep.” Really?

Clearly, I needed to know the people with whom I worked. “Find out how they like to communicate” was the lesson learned. 

The “differentiated interpersonal skills” dynamic made me think about the dichotomies of courageous leadership: opposites that are part of our work as leaders; opposites that are affected by factors sometimes beyond our control; opposites that need to be applied given the landscape and environment. 

Here is a list of some of these dichotomies:

Calm vs. Storm

At times, you are required to be calm in the face of a storm. Sounds familiar? Think of COVID: at other times, you need to be bothered by words and actions that work against the essence of your school. Think of unnecessary harsh words spoken by a student, staff member, or parent.  

Falcon vs Sloth

Occasionally you will need to move quickly to seize an opportunity: money for a specific project that aligns with your learning vision suddenly is put on your plate. At other times, you need to stay, ponder, dream, and pray when considering a major decision that will have a significant impact: think of a building addition.

Numbers vs Gut

Periodically, you are required to survey people to confirm thinking. You may need to look at report card grades to confirm trends. At other times, you need to follow your “gut”:  think of an action item that you know needs to be implemented even though you don’t have all the supporting data.

Mouth vs Ears

There are moments when you need to use your mouth, and people need to hear you cast vision, navigate a difficult situation, and speak words of hope and comfort. There are also times when you must be silent and listen. You must be comfortable with being led, understand that you don’t know all the answers, and realize how being quiet is being helpful.

Mine vs Yours

Most leaders understand they are responsible for every part of the organization. Yet that does not imply that you must do everything in your organization. You must empower people. You must train leaders and give them moments to learn without hovering. Creating a safe place for your people to grow, try, fail, and learn is crucial.

The resulting public messaging is then filtered by this principle: “When it goes well, credit is given to the employee; when it doesn't go well, I, the leader, will take responsibility.”

Realize that you live in the middle of dichotomies on a regular basis. Be comfortable there.  Connect well with others, both inside and outside your organization, who can give you feedback about your thoughts and actions in this dichotomous world. 

May the Lord of all wisdom give you discernment to know why, how, and where. May our God of peace grant you an inexplicable calm as you face many situations. May our Jehovah give you joy in this invigorating world called leadership. 

Carry on, courageous leader. The Lord goes with you.


George Petrusma is the Toronto Region Cohort Leader and Principal at John Knox Christian School in Oakville, ON.

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