Leaders guard the powerless
I was a 28-year-old high school principal when I met the young student who, 25 years later, wrote me the following letter.
"Dear Mr. Barone:
“The purpose of this letter is to thank you. When I have reflected on the turning points in my life, you are responsible for the first of many steps in my life. I was a freshman or sophomore when you pulled me from class to tell me that you had nominated me for the Hugh O'Brian leadership award. I was stunned. I simply did not think of myself that way. But I do remember clearly thinking, ‘If Mr. Barone believes in me, why don't I believe in myself?' And, so, the process began.
“I have told that story many times for two reasons. The first is to demonstrate how others can play a significant role in our life without ever knowing it. The second reason is that that event is part of my life story. That simple exchange in the hallway was the first step in my thinking of myself in different and more positive terms. It was one of those lightbulb moments. You made a significant difference in my life and I thought it was time I let you know."
What does it mean, really, to be "accountable"?
Fundamentally, it means the ability to give an accounting of your actions, your decisions, and the consequences of those actions and decisions. But account to whom?
As a principal I had to account to my school board, which had the power to fire me. I had to account to parents who kept a watchful eye on how well and fairly their children were treated. There was also the community at large, ever alert through its media to any public misstep or private flaw in its educational leaders.
All was as it should have been. I did my darnedest to meet the legitimate expectations of those entities. They were the "power people" to whom I was accountable and whom I crossed at my peril.
Maybe I was too young to know any better, but, as important as the power people were, I felt a profound accountability to the powerless people in the mix: the students. High schoolers. That strange species so different from the rest of us with their sudden growth spurts, sudden outbreaks of temper and pimples, and sudden moments of inconsolable grief and effervescent joy at the terrible changes adolescence is tossing across their path.
There was the pregnant junior who moved a thousand miles to her sister's house and applied to our Catholic school for admission. I admitted her. Some board members were displeased.
"Why did you admit a pregnant girl?" they asked.
"We're pro-life," I answered.
"What message does this send to the other juniors?"
"What will the students say about this?"
"I met with the entire junior class about it."
"They asked, ‘What's the big deal?'?"
That scared and lovely young woman was admitted, and her class took great care of her. She returned home happy. The baby was adorable.
There was the sophomore who was hospitalized for several months with a congenital illness. We (her classmates and I) set up a 1970s high-tech sound system that allowed her to communicate from her bed to her classroom and back, and she lost no class time.
I am not humble about any of this. I did plenty of things maladroitly, but I really did stand up for the least powerful constituency in the system. To most of the students I remained the enemy. That is as it should be. I was their principal. My job was to educate them, not befriend them.
It's just that, when push came to shove, with all the interested parties to whom I was accountable, I don't think I ever lost the conviction that my primary accountability was to those kids. I frequently asked myself, "Did you do right by that student?" I asked that question a lot. Otherwise, I ran the risk of forgetting them, the powerless ones.
I almost never had to ask "Did you do right by the school board, the parents, the press?" Their claim on my concern was implicit in their power over me.
I do not know what it is like to be a big-time coach, as Joe Paterno was. I do not know what it is like to be a Roman Catholic bishop of a large diocese. I do know that both feel tremendous accountability to very powerful interests, interests they must protect, nurture, and appease, or they will fail. When presented with a dilemma, a problem, even a crisis, they prioritize interests and decide to whom they are accountable. Donors? Athletes? Fans? Fellow clergy or coaches? The good name of their institution?
All these interests have one thing in common. They are powerful, and they press hard upon the leader with the ominous force that powerful interests possess. It is no small thing for that leader to stretch out the palm of his hand into the very chest of these insistent forces and say, "Hold on a minute."
Then the leader searches about and seeks out the least powerful within the system — the children, perhaps. Still holding the powerful at bay, the leader looks down at these, the powerless, the ones who can afford him no possible advantage, and says, "I am accountable to you first. I will do right by you first. You I will protect and keep safe. Then I will attend to the rest."
Imagine Coach Paterno doing all that when presented with evidence that one of the powerless ones was suffering. Imagine one, just one, bishop doing that when the very first indication came that one of the powerless was suffering. What if they said, simply, "I will be accountable first to you."
What a blessed difference that would have made. And what other lesson is there to draw from the heart-searing events we have witnessed in these somber days?