This letter is from the head of a very wonderful school in NYC where my two young daughters started their education when we lived in the City. I pass it along as a rite of fall and a celebration of the great month of September:
The first days of school are always exciting, yet as we approach our 90th Anniversary, I can’t help but think of Miss Nightingale and Miss Bamford and what they must have been experiencing as they began their first days of school back in 1920. What courage they both displayed, and what foresight, to found a school for girls—and run by women—at a time when both of these concepts were far from accepted. They showed, most simply, great leadership—a concept on my mind and the minds of our faculty as we continue to shape what the graduate of our future will be.
Earlier in the summer I attended the annual conference of the Country Day School Headmasters’ Association at Bowdoin College in Maine, where we immersed ourselves in the topic of leadership from a variety of perspectives. The keynote speaker was Angus King, the former governor of Maine, who uses the lives of famous historical figures to teach college students about leadership. He movingly told the story of Bowdoin graduate and professor Joshua Chamberlain, who left his comfortable life in Portland to join the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment after the Civil War broke out.
With no previous experience, Chamberlain learned all that he could about military strategy and tactics from his commanding officer, West Point graduate Adlebert Ames. Chamberlain later took over the command of the 20th Maine when Ames was transferred. On Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Chamberlain made the critical decision to order his troops to “fix bayonets” and charge the much larger and better-equipped Confederate forces of the 15th Alabama. His decision to take the offense and use the element of surprise changed the course of our history, and, according to King and others, saved the United States. Later, General Grant appointed Chamberlain to lead the ceremony for the Union when General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Chamberlain was apparently so moved by Lee and the Confederates that he ordered his own men to salute as a sign of respect, or “honor answering honor.” While Chamberlain was criticized at the time, this public act went a long way to begin the healing process for a bitterly divided nation. From Chamberlain’s life, King drew 10 essential lessons of leadership:
1. Establish a vision—Chamberlain had a vision of a United States of America.
2. Build a team—surround yourself with people smarter than you who can give you a diverse set of views. (Otherwise, as King joked, you can save yourself a lot of time and just buy mirrors.)
3. Persevere—many failures precede success.
4. Do your homework—you cannot delegate thinking.
5. Listen and find ways to demonstrate that you have heard.
6. Bank trust, which will be needed for later withdrawals. Some trust comes by virtue of your position, but most has to be earned.
7. Communicate clearly.
8. Be decisive and optimistic. As Chamberlain demonstrated at Gettysburg, don't spread uncertainty down the line.
9. Be flexible and creative.
10. Model character, which King defined as a combination of honesty, integrity, and courage.
These are wonderful points for us to consider as we explore ways to cultivate leadership qualities in our students. They apply to Miss Nightingale and Miss Bamford as equally as to Colonel Chamberlain, and they apply to many of the situations that our young women will find themselves in as they progress through Upper School, college, and beyond. In our increasingly connected world, the ability to lead others becomes all the more important.
I’m excited to watch a new generation of leaders grow and flourish this year —let’s get started!