Free the Birds (Bloody Knuckles or Not)

ImageI’m not a birdwatcher. I don’t have binoculars. And I have never taken part in a Big Year. But, I like birds. I have two double shepherd’s hooks in my backyard, and I like to relax on my deck watching the birds eat at the feeders that hang on the hooks.

Not too long ago I noticed a sparrow had gotten himself stuck at my feeder. His foot was pinned at the point where the two hooks come together. He was hanging there helplessly, and I decided to free him.   

As I reached for him, the sparrow starting flapping his wings and pecking at my hand. I grabbed him and let him go, and then looked to see my hand covered in scratches. Image

Unbelievable! Here I was trying to free this helpless little bird, and the only thanks I got were some bloody knuckles.

But that’s life, right?

How many times do you try to free a bird only to find yourself with bloody knuckles? It happens all the time with our kids: eat your vegetables; time for bed; brush your teeth; put the video games away; do your homework. All things that are good for the kids, yet we’re often thanked with rolled eyes, outright obstinance, or the passive-aggressive “whatever.”

We do it too. My doctor always tells me to avoid sweets, and I know that avoiding sweets is in my best interest. But if there’s a chocolate chip cookie within a hundred yards of me I can sense it and seek it out. My doctor is telling me what I should do for my own good, and I yet I totally disregard his advice. He’s trying to free me from the shepherd’s hook, and I am fighting him along the way.

School leaders—all leaders, really–periodically free birds only to have their knuckles bloodied. Often the toughest job a leader has is deliver bad news to people who don’t want to hear it. Often that news is in the best interest of the receiver, and often it is returned with anger, threats, letters to editors, and slanderous behind the back comments.

School leaders see this often: when we are referring a student for an IEP against the parents’ will; when we are making personnel decisions; when we decide to retain a student; when we alter bus routes or redistrict school buildings or recommend controversial policy changes. All tough decisions, all carefully considered, and all what we believe are in the best interest of the student or parent or staff member or district.

And yet we know that with every decision, somebody will be unhappy. And we know, too, that not making a decision IS making a decision.

So what’s the answer? If bloody knuckles are coming no matter what, we may as well just do what is right. Ultimately a leader’s conscience needs to be his guide. Even though we may be criticized or attacked, we need to do that which is virtuous and good and fair and honest.

The Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent Keith (find them here) remind us:

  • The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

We must take seriously the responsibility that comes with leadership.  Even though we know that bloody knuckles may follow, we must continue to free the birds. We must do so with integrity and empathy, and we must do so even knowing that what’s right is not always easy.


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