Missouri School Leaders Must “Adjust the Sails”

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

-John Maxwell

As I recently reflected on this quote, I was reminded of a critical lesson I learned as an Army officer in the early 1990’s.  Months after Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm to liberate our Kuwaiti allies from the invaders.  We engaged in a massive air offensive for weeks.  Clearing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, however, was going to require intense fighting on the ground. We had to face the daunting reality that even though we were unaccustomed to desert warfare, we were going to have to engage a well-positioned, experienced enemy in the desert sands of southern Kuwait.

The Iraqis understood that our forces had very limited avenues of approach.  For thousands of years, people had relied on specific known landmarks, such as dry river beds, to navigate the vast desert landscape.  The Iraqi strategy was to concentrate their forces on these known avenues of approach and ambush our forces as we tried to take back Kuwait.  This strategy, based upon well-established tenets of desert warfare, promised to result in a protracted conflict costing massive numbers of American lives. Saddam Hussein boasted that he could make the cost of liberating Kuwait higher than the United States would be willing to pay. His specific admonition to Americans was, “Yours is a nation that cannot afford to take 10,000 casualties in a single day.”

Facing this daunting challenge, American leaders took a huge risk.   They developed an innovative strategy that called for our troops to navigate across the vast desert without landmarks to guide them.  Our leaders decided to rely on a new technology available in limited supply and never used for such a monumental ground offensive.  Our Army and individual soldiers quickly purchased as many commercially available GPS devices as they could find.  With only 3,000 GPS devices for its contingent of 40,000 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, howitzers and cavalry, our Army advanced more than 200 kilometers in two days through uncharted desert territory.  Our forces navigated far to the west of the point in Southern Kuwait where the Iraqi forces were waiting to ambush us.  We outflanked the Iraqi army by launching into a territory of unknowns and relying on a little known technology to guide our way.  Faced with an overwhelming challenge, our leaders had found a bold, innovative solution.

We in public education face no less a challenge today.  The profound educational needs of our children must be met at a time when a global health crisis has closed the doors to our buildings for a period yet to be determined.  We now face regression on a massive scale and a significant degradation in the quality of the lives of the children we all serve. We have entered a territory of unknowns.

Our school leaders must now exercise bold, innovative leadership if we are to meet the current challenge. We must learn to navigate uncharted territory without the solace of known landmarks.  We must find new tools and embrace new methods for finding our way.  What our school leaders do, or fail to do, at this juncture will define public education in Missouri for our next generation.   The men and women who lead Missouri schools undoubtedly have the capacity to find innovative solutions to our current crisis.   It is time to boldly determine our path across this uncharted territory.  We are beyond complaining about the wind, or merely expecting it to change.  It is time for school leaders to “adjust the sails.”

-Duane Martin