The Naked Leader

Red Smith famously said, “writing is easy…you just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  No one believed him like Frank McCourt.  We lost McCourt over the weekend, but not before he gave everything he had to his readers and students.

McCourt didn’t stop the bleeding when he got up from the typewriter, one reason he was so good in the classroom.  He was exposed, completely.  His example suggests an intersection of great writing, teaching and leadership.  The more layers he removed, the more effective he became at making other people better.

One of the more powerful anecdotes in McCourt’s ‘Tis is about his transformation from an authoritarian, sadistic ruler of his students at Stuyvesant High School, among the most elite in the country, to someone with the devotion and empathy to excite young minds. We find him hiding behind a ridiculous front of dominance and power – and then, in an instant, he removes it.  And his life starts over.

Every day I teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the test, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam, I’ll call your father, I’ll call your mother, I’ll report you to the governor, I’ll damage your average so badly, kid, you’ll be lucky to get into a community college in Mississippi, weapons of menace and control.

One day a rebellion starts to brew.  One student has had enough.  The class starts circling around McCourt’s dirty, little secret, which is that the tyrant at the front of the room never went to high school.

So, Mr. McCourt, I thought you had to get a license to teach in the city.

You do.

Don’t you have to get a college degree.

You do.

Don’t you have to graduate from high school to get into college?

You mean graduate from high school, from high school, from from from.

I suppose you do.

Tyro lawyer grills teacher, carries the day, and word spreads to my other classes. Wow, Mr. McCourt, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man.

And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask.

I’m naked and starting over and I hardly know where to begin.

As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this decision leads to McCourt’s extraordinary impact.  This was his pivot from safety to influence.  Most leaders confront a similar choice at some point in their lives, usually the choice between impersonating a leader and actually leading.  By documenting what can happen when the mask drops, McCourt made it harder for the rest of us to hide.

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