A Eulogy for a Leader

img_1182-1A while back I shared what I consider to be the key components of leadership.  My reflection stemmed from a conversation I had a long time ago with Tom Sergiovanni who suggested that “leadership was the capacity to build followership”. In piecing together my own experiences in various leadership positions and the lessons learned from my work as an executive coach, I identified both what I considered the key components of leadership as well as the process by which prospective leaders moved the  “capacity to build followership” into actual followership.

The “journey” begins with honest, sometimes “fierce” conversation, builds these into deep, caring, trusting relationships and creates what Simon Sinek calls “circles of safety”… places where the presence of such caring, trusting relationships help us overcome our fears of change, of risk-taking, of ‘following’ to places that might be unfamiliar.

This week I had the opportunity to read in a local paper a tribute to a superintendent who had died suddenly in tragic circumstances.  I’ve included the link to the piece  here and I urge you to read it. It is more than the story of one very talented and highly respected educator.  It is a course description of leadership… of the skills and dispositions that resulted in a kind of “holy” followership.

The author, Rob Anthes writes…

Two years have passed since a car driven by a Robbinsville High School student struck and killed the Robbinsville Schools superintendent and his dog, Gertie, April 19, 2016. That day and the days that followed changed Robbinsville forever.

But it quickly became clear that [Steve] Mayer wouldn’t be defined by how he died. He had long been mindful of his reputation and the path he led, and the school district followed suit.

This could be applied to practical things, such as the way the school district looks for alternative revenue sources, the cultivating of the Robbinsville Extended Day program, the creation of an energy savings improvement plan and the hiring of a school resource officer.

It could be seen in the way he approached education, believing in opportunities and access for all students. He felt strongly that students needed to learn how to be citizens and to have a voice, which is why he encouraged involving students in discussions. The district continues to hold student focus groups so the education in Robbinsville Schools reflects those the district serves.

It’s seen in Robbinsville’s curriculum, which prioritizes research and communication skills thanks to Mayer’s push.

…But, on the surface, these are things every superintendent does. So why does Mayer continue to serve as a guide for the Robbinsville community?

The district’s current superintendent, Kathie Foster, explained…

“He made so many deep, abiding and personal connections,” Foster said. “That’s why we talk about him. He was such a genuine person. His heart was so big and so visible. He shared with everyone. You talk with people, and they say that he was such a close friend of theirs. You hear that from so many people. Part of that is the openness to love everyone. That’s who he was. He was not afraid to love and accept.”

This has been made apparent to every person who walks through the front doors of a Robbinsville school. In the vestibule of each of the district’s three schools, there’s a plaque. On it is Mayer with his trademark smile and the phrase, “Make someone’s day today.”

Anthes continues…

The district has worked so its students learn these attributes, the ones that made Mayer so special—empathy, compassion, resilience. The corporate world calls these “soft skills,” but people who crossed paths with Mayer know better than most there’s nothing soft about them. Foster suggested a more suitable term would be “human.” For it was with those skills, Mayer changed countless lives—merely by embracing others’ humanity. It’s also what those same people miss most about him.

Anthes concludes his piece with an excerpt from a description written by Dr. Mayer’s administrative assistant.

Steve Mayer…Boss. Friend. Seeker. Good Steward. Family Man. Scholar. Sports Fan. Nature Lover. Teacher. Leader. Champion of Justice. Inspiration.

An open minded enthusiast for children, families and the Robbinsville community, Steve had a passion for new ideas and loved the process—and the challenge—of helping people to see the world in new and different ways. He had a quick mind and was rarely at a loss for words. My friend was as smart as he was fun. He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing. I am just one of many whose lives are richer and more meaningful for having had the good fortune to have known him.

I recall a story written about Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War did not grant interviews.  He did, however, invite a reporter to spend the day with him as he went about his work.  At one point the reporter was ushered into a room in the White House which had been converted into a miniature battlefield. The reporter asked Lincoln, if he was, as Commander-in- Chief, trying to plan a victorious battle. Lincoln replied. “No. I’m trying to save lives. For if too many soldiers die in this war, it will be impossible to reunite the country.”  The reporter wrote a short article praising Lincoln and asking readers if all wouldn’t want a leader whose goal was to save lives.

When Lincoln was assassinated, in his pockets were a few dollars and a dog-eared, folded piece of paper.  People then recalled that in times of stress, Lincoln frequently pulled a small piece of folded paper from his pocket and read it.  It was a copy of the article.

In our work as leaders here are a few words to carry with us…

He was committed to excellence and couldn’t help but look to uncover the quiet hero in every individual that crossed his path. By nature, he was an optimist who fostered independence in others by encouraging them to fly. He provided me, and countless others, with wings to soar and a soft place to fall in the event of a crash landing.


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