The Compassionate Leader

By Mark D. Benigni

With all the recent research and discussion about competency, change leadership, communities of learning, commitment, and collaboration, we must not ignore a leader’s need for the essential ingredient: compassion.

The need for compassionate leadership in our schools became apparent in a dramatic way last year as my school family was dealt a series of devastating personal blows. In the spring, the teenage son of one of our special education teachers was struck by a car while jogging. The accident left him with significant brain damage and numerous physical handicaps. That fall, on an icy morning with numerous reports of black ice and accidents, the 16-year-old daughter of our social studies department chairman was in a serious accident. When he got to the hospital, she was in a coma.

With the faculty still reeling from these tragic accidents, our crisis response team was called for an emergency meeting. Thoughts raced through my mind. It can’t be another tragedy, not now. We are still fragile, still in shock, still in search of answers.

As our superintendent walked into the room, there was complete silence and an eerie feeling of emptiness. It was, indeed, dreadful news: Two of our high schools students took a canoe out on the lake for an early evening excursion. When the canoe capsized, both students fell in to the frigid water. Despite the paramedics’ best efforts, we lost one of them.

Yet another blow came later. On a typical Thursday night, after our state championship basketball team had just won another close game, a science teacher received difficult news. Her younger brother and sister had been in a horrific car accident. When paramedics arrived, the brother was giving the sister CPR. Her brother had hundreds of stitches in his barely recognizable face, and her sister sustained brain damage that affected her ability to speak.

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