November/December 2021

Leadership Letter: The Word of the Day

By Thomas E. Bertrand

What has been the most overused word during the global pandemic? Is it “unprecedented”? Is it “pivot”? You can fill in the blank with your favorite overused word.
 
The word that I have been thinking about a lot the past several months is conflict. Many of us are experiencing what author Amanda Ripley refers to as “high conflict.” In her book, High Conflict, Ripley provides some historical context for the type of conflict that we are experiencing in our country today.
 
Ripley recounts the decade-long conflict between the Hatfields and McCoys — a feud that followed an incident involving the theft of a pig in 1878 in West Virginia — to draw a parallel to the destructive conflict we see playing out today across our state and country.
 
Conflict can be healthy when it helps us understand each other and allows us to work toward a solution to a problem. Conflict is also healthy when those involved in it remain open to the reality that none of us has all the answers and that we are all connected.
 
High conflict is what happens when conflict becomes a struggle between “good and evil,” or “us” versus “them.”
 
The parties involved in high conflict are convinced they are right and often believe they are justified in their actions or behavior. Each encounter with the opposition involved in high conflict can grow more emotionally charged. People caught up in high conflict do not think of themselves as full of hate. They believe they are right.
 
I know that high conflict is now playing out at school board meetings across the country, leading some school leaders to question whether it’s all worth it. I know that it feels like we have been mired in this quicksand forever.
 
But we will get through this.
 
It is important to remember that in most cases, there is an “exhausted majority” made up of most of the people you serve. They may not attend your school board meetings, because they are leading their lives and juggling the challenges of work and home that have been exacerbated during this pandemic. They are worried about their children’s health. They are exhausted from the seemingly endless media coverage of the pandemic and the conflicts that have resulted from it. They are saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and behavior that are sometimes on full display at school board meetings.
 
That the exhausted majority is often detached from your board work creates an opening for those who relish high conflict to have outsized influence or attention at school board meetings. And they seem to always show up.
 
Remember that, while it may not always feel like it, many of those people showing up at your board meetings and posting on social media don’t represent the majority — the silent majority — that elected you because they trusted you to lead. The silent majority understands that school leaders face agonizing decisions that are influenced by circumstances beyond the control of local boards of education.
 
It’s also important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself. Disconnect when you can. Turn off your social media channels. Breathe. You will get through this.
 
Your Association is here for you. As we have done throughout the pandemic we will continue to share your experiences and challenges with our elected leaders. We will continue to support your important work, service, and leadership on behalf of the nearly 2 million children attending Illinois’ public schools. 
 
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.