Monthly Archives: November 2013

Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part III

Whether you have read the Harry Potter series or not, you probably know this much about them: the title character is a school-aged wizard-in-training destined (and expected) to defeat the ultimate bad guy: Lord Voldemort.  What you may not have considered before, even if you have read the books, is that Harry’s mentor, Professor Albus Dumbledore is a model of effective leadership: particularly educational leadership.  Several of the characteristics that make him a leader were the subject of Part I and Part II in this series.  Three more of Dumbledore’s leadership characteristics are highlighted here in this third and final installment.

Dumbledore is not tempted by wealth or power.  From my perspective, access to power and the offer of wealth are inducements to compromise one’s good judgement which are not easily ignored.  Somehow, he does ignore these temptations though.  He is offered the position of Minister of Magic multiple times but steadfastly refuses.  Although that position would afford him much greater power, Dumbledore is convinced that his place is at Hogwarts and is not swayed by this offer of power.  Even without this official appointment, Dumbledore has great power and influence but chooses to use it sparingly.  He is the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, but does not use that position to his own advantage.  He comes into possession of the Sorcerer’s stone but chooses not to claim the immortality that it offers.  By the end of the series, it becomes clear that he owns the Elder Wand – the most powerful of all wands – but does not flaunt its power whatsoever.  As Dumbledore is a human being, he must certainly be tempted by these enticements.  Indeed there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is definitely flawed as both a leader and as a man.  He seems to recognize fully, however, that great leaders draw away from wielding the influence of their wealth and power as they acquire more.  They are not seduced nor driven by a quest to accumulate either.  

newspaperOne of the most inspiring points I see in Dumbledore is the fact that he is not distracted or swayed by “scandal” or bureaucratic pressure.  He continues teaching and leading Hogwarts in the way he believes to be best in spite of pressure from the Board of Governors.  In fact, he is temporarily removed from his position as Headmaster because he refuses to implement policies that he believes to be harmful to his students.  Dumbledore also ignores frequent (and ludicrous) attacks in the newspaper.  While it is unclear how the criticism and accusations and lies make him feel, they do nothing to deter him from the actions he knows to be right for his students.  Even the Ministry of Magic does its best to control Dumbledore through pressure, slander, and even the threat of sanctions and arrest.  While he gives ground in some cases, Dumbledore never compromises in spite of the pressure he faces from the central office, the government and the media.

One final characteristic that I admire in this leader, is his refusal to take himself too seriously.  In spite of the fact that he is the world greatest wizard he has an acute sense of humor.  Throughout the series, this attitude of whimsical joyfulness is most often his default mood and masks nearly entirely the staggering depth of knowledge and the awesome power that he possesses.  He sets silly passwords to protect the door to his office.  He is aware of student fads, particularly the light-hearted (if officially banned) practices students are fond of.  Even at official functions, like the start of term feasts he is so unpretentious as to keep his speeches extremely short, including one that was famously only three words long.  When set beside government officials and professors and even muggles who are filled with self-importance, Dumbledore provides by sharp contrast an example of a healthy sense of humor and self-image.

There are other characteristics of an effective leader easily seen in Dumbledore: courage, decisiveness, delegation of responsibility, time management, vision-casting, clear and effective communication, and many more.  Perhaps those can be the focus of another discussion.  In the meantime, for me, there can be no doubt that whether J.K. Rowling has studied the characteristics of an effective leader or not, Albus Dumbledore is an example of a highly effective leader – particularly in the areas of school leadership.  Even as a fictional character, he models for me a combination of qualities and approaches to leadership that I find to be worth studying and aspiring to acquire.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part II

In the first part of this series, I proposed the idea that Professor Albus Dumbledore is more than an authority figure to serve as a backdrop against which Harry Potter’s character develops – he embodies a strong leader to match (and mentor) the hero Harry becomes.  Dumbledore is devoted to a life of learning, is committed to the pre-eminence of learning over compliance, and is dedicated to the belief that learning rarely happens in the midst of chaos.  To these strong leadership qualities, Dumbledore adds the following.

Dumbledore places a strong emphasis on recruitment and personnel development.  He only hires the best teachers.  Minerva McGonagall is arguably the best teacher portrayed in the Harry Potter series.  She demonstrates a deep knowledge of her content area, is a very skillful classroom instructor, builds positive relationships with students, never acts out of bias or shows favoritism, and holds students to high standards.  She serves as Dumbledore’s Deputy Headmistress – a testament to her own leadership abilities.  In Professor McGonagall we see an example of a consummate professional.  From my perspective, the only reason that an individual of McGonagall’s extensive abilities works as a teacher at all is because of the leadership of Dumbledore.  She could easily hold any of a number of other positions, but believes in the vision of Dumbledore so much that she dedicates a lifetime of service to educating the young.  snapeAnother example of Dumbledore’s dedication to developing those around him is Severus Snape.  Although he is frequently in conflict with Harry and often appears to be in league with Voldemort, Snape is nevertheless in point of fact unrivaled at his craft.  Although he covets the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, his mastery of Potions is so prodigious that several teachers (including Professor Dumbledore) seek his assistance when they want to be absolutely sure of getting a potion right.  Dumbledore keeps him on as a teacher even when their pedagogical practices do not align perfectly.  Through the course of their relationship, Dumbledore serves as a mentor to him and shapes the course of his career (and life) significantly.  Another example of Dumbledore’s drive to assemble the best possible team is Rubeus Hagrid.  While most other Headmasters would not likely have permitted someone who had been expelled from school and had his wand broken to be their gamekeeper, Dumbledore sees great value and potential in Hagrid.  Who else would have the passion and willingness to handle all the dangerous and sensational magical beasts that Hagrid does?  As Harry and his friends find out, hands-on learning is much more meaningful than learning from a book in most subject areas.  When it comes to magical beasts, Hagrid’s abilities give all his students valuable knowledge and experiences that they are unlikely to have gained without him.  There are many other examples of Dumbledore’s commitment to hiring only the best – Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody, the best of the Aurors; Firenze, the ultimate Divination teacher; Professor Sprout, Herbology teacher extraordinaire; Professor Binns, the ghost who teaches history; etc, etc.  Dumbledore knows that an exemplary school requires an excellent team; his own proficiencies are not enough.  By recruiting and growing a team around him, he makes Hogwarts a school without parallel.

Professor Dumbledore always treats others with respect.  This is a leadership quality much more easily identified than exemplified.  It is particularly difficult (in my experience) to treat others with dignity and respect when you know that they are actively seeking to undermine your success and that of your organization.  Dumbledore does exactly that, though.  He speaks respectfully and graciously to Draco Malfoy at all times, even when Malfoy makes it his business to antagonize Harry Potter.  There is no change in this tone even when Malfoy comes to kill Dumbledore.  Dumbledore is courteous to Lucius Malfoy, even when he orchestrates Dumbledore’s removal as headmaster.  Dolores Umbrage, through her actions, severely disrupts learning at Hogwarts and actively persecutes Harry Potter and his friends.  In spite of all that, Professor Dumbledore insists on treating her too with great dignity.  But perhaps most notable is Dumbledore’s interactions with Tom Riddle.  As a young teacher at Hogwarts, Dumbledore taught a young man who would eventually choose a path that led to his becoming the most powerful dark wizard.  During his school days, Dumbledore suspected that Riddle had been doing evil things and knew that he was keeping secrets.  Even this very troubled young man who would allow his pain to twist him into a tortured adult could never honestly say that he was ignored or belittled or disrespected by Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore is humble.  In spite of the fact that he has legitimately earned a lengthy list of titles and built an unparalleled resume, he is addressed simply as “professor” by his student and as “Albus” by his teachers.  When considered in contrast to so many who insist on the use of the proper honorific by those around them, this practice is even more refreshing.  In spite of his vast knowledge and rich experiences, Dumbledore is known for his short speeches.  Not only does he avoid bloviating publicly, Dumbledore does not even mention his own exploits or use much of his power except at great need and almost never publicly.  In fact, the majority of his power remains cloaked from his students to the point that at least one of them foolishly concludes that his own feeble abilities are a match for this great wizard’s.  In spite of his great power though, and as further proof of his humility, Dumbledore is not too proud to ask for help.  He seeks assistance from his teachers, from outcast wizards, from men and women who doubt themselves and their own abilities, from children, and from ordinary muggles.  He never, ever casts himself as a one-man act.  His humility keeps him from challenging Voldemort in open combat.  Although he is the most powerful wizard in the world, Dumbledore does not let that cloud the fact that it is not his destiny to defeat the Dark Lord.  He pours all he can into preparing Harry to fill that role instead.

If you have enjoyed either or both of the first two posts in this series, the third post  has aparated here.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part I

As a Language Arts teacher, I considered teaching students to think deeply about what they read a very serious responsibility.  I continue to believe that critical thinking is the single most important lesson students can learn from us.  Either from a devotion to developing this skill in myself or because I am afflicted by the very human drive to make meaning of everything around me, I love the richness of literature and often seek to discover significance where others may not see it.  In that vein, and at the risk of crediting authorial intent and genius where it may or may not be intended, I submit that Professor Albus Dumbledore provides a model of a leadership (particularly school leadership) worthy of emulation.  A colleague once suggested that I may share some characteristics with Dumbledore.  The truth is that it would give me great pleasure to be considered half the leader I believe him to be.

origin_5190050734 (1)In case you have not read the Harry Potter books, Professor Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry attends school.  Dumbledore’s other positions, accomplishments, and honors are too many to list here.  He plays a significant role in a story centered around a student at his school precisely because he takes the time to know and develop a relationship with his students.

What follows are a few of the practices and characteristics that make him such an effective school leader.

Professor Dumbledore is a learning leader.  The role of principal has shifted significantly in the last decade.  Most have abandoned the view that values managerial prowess as the ultimate qualification.  A deep understanding of teaching and learning has emerged as most critical instead.  As the reasoning goes, a principal must be the “chief learner” in his/her school – the one who leads by the example of being most dedicated to advancing his/her own learning.  In a story full of students and of avid learners, Dumbledore is arguably the most dedicated learner of all.  For example, throughout the series, he seeks relentlessly to understand history.  He interviews “witnesses” to events that appear to be important; he “collects” memories for further study; he pores over ancient texts and rumors and legends.  Near the end of the story, his study of the nature, creation, identity, and location of “horcruxes” – the magical objects created by the antagonist Lord Voldemort in an attempt to achieve immortality – becomes a major focus of his efforts.  He commits himself – at great cost – to a high level of learning.  In a school full of learners, he models an unparalleled commitment to learning.  Even more impressive than his commitment to the study of magical history is his dedication to understanding “muggles” – non-magical human beings.  In fact, one of the great contrasts between Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort is their respective view of muggles. Voldemort disdains them – when he does not hate them – and considers learning about them beneath his dignity.  Dumbledore respects muggles, does everything within his considerable power to protect them, and commits himself to learning as much as possible about them.  On the checklist of qualities that make a great leader, the box next to “committed to learning” is definitely marked for Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore values learning more than rules.  In my experience, many educators act as if the enforcement of school rules is their most important job.  It is distressing (and frankly confusing) to me that we so often deprive students of the opportunity to learn for violating rules designed to ensure that they stay engaged in learning – like when we suspend students for being tardy to class.  I believe that it is critical to remember that the rules we establish in schools serve our main focus – learning.  Professor Dumbledore seems to operate from a similar belief.  He nurtures Harry’s growth even when Harry runs afoul of school rules.  From early in his first year, Harry frequently finds himself on the wrong side of school rules.  His transgressions come mostly in the course of protecting his friends or fighting against the Dark Lord but he does in fact break the rules fairly regularly.  From being “out of bounds” at every turn to sneaking into faculty members’ offices to crashing a flying car onto school’s lawn – Harry just can’t seem to obey the rules consistently.  Dumbledore knows of Harry’s indiscretions.  He frequently witnesses them; they are also reported to him by members of the faculty and staff and he is urged to apply strong sanctions.  While he does threaten to expel Harry if he doesn’t toe the line, he makes Harry’s learning a much higher priority than Harry’s obedience.  On more than one occasion, when he could be punishing him, Dumbledore chooses instead to teach Harry.  You see, Dumbledore knows that an ability to follow rules will not be adequate preparation for the future that Harry will face.  While a total disregard for order within the school environment would be harmful to his growth, a rigid conforming to the rules would not have prepared Harry for the feats he accomplishes.  Dumbledore allows Harry (and other students) to make mistakes – and even bend the rules – so that they can continue learning.

… but does not stop others from enforcing rules.  While school rules are subservient to student learning, they are not valueless.  Great schools do not spend a huge amount of time enforcing petty rules, but their students adhere to expectations anyway.  Great leaders do not cast themselves as disciplinarians, but they do ensure that there is order within their schools.  Dumbledore may not have spent his time handing out detentions or deducting house points from mischievous children, but he also does not stop others from enforcing the rules.  Professor Severus Snape very aggressively pursues the enforcement of school rules – frequently with undue relish.  Mr. Argus Filch (caretaker/custodian) has whole filing cabinets full of disciplinary files and begs Dumbledore to reinstate the more severe forms of punishment.  Dolores Umbridge is so devoted to rules that she makes up new ones and creates squads of students deputized to rat on their classmates for any violation of her ever increasing list of commandments.  Throughout Dumbledore’s tenure as headmaster, he does not stop others from enforcing school rules.  True, he prohibits Filch from torturing students; and he does not expel Harry as Snape urges; and he leaves the school (temporarily) when Umbridge goes too far in her zeal.  He focuses his efforts on teaching and learning, but he does not treat school rules with disrespect nor does he ask teachers to let students ignore them.  Even when Harry is assigned to unfair and even cruel punishments, Dumbledore does not overturn them.  He knows that the only thing more dangerous than a mindless enforcement of the rules is a wanton disregard for them.

Part II describes more leadership traits that Professor Dumbledore models.

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