Taking charge when others are paralyzed

December 4, 2017
Charles Hyman
Charles Hyman

When the editor of this publication asked me to do a piece on leadership, a topic that numbs the imagination yet generates vast amounts of literature, I was tempted to retreat into my languid retirement mode, the one that relegates past concerns to the memory trash. But the prospect of being in good company with so many of my former colleagues sparked sufficient interest to get on with the task.

The late Bernie Keeler was executive secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association for half of my career with the organization. He was a man of huge intellect who didn’t have to go out of his way to demonstrate his capacity to lead a teacher organization. He was a natural—superbly organized, manifestly committed to the profession, deeply interested in organizational dynamics, resolute in the face of threat and consistent—my personal favourite among his leadership qualities.

He was the closest the Association ever got to having a Mr. Spock in charge of its affairs. Bernie’s mathematical mind emanated a logical approach to almost every question. This meant he didn’t play favourites, he dispensed equal treatment (including editorial notations) to all and, from my initial standpoint as an executive staff novice, he made it easy to grasp the ATA’s organizational ropes.

I spent about 16 years in the Association’s Teacher Welfare area, where the daily work has little to do with the nature of teaching and almost everything to do with the environment in which teaching is performed. While the leadership of teacher organizations is concerned with the profession’s work, the threats and challenges frequently faced by teacher organizations often have only remote connections to teaching. For example, politics, economics, demographics and other factors are often the source of issues and concerns that are unrelated to learning styles, curriculum or assessment.

Teacher organization leadership, therefore, requires a big picture approach to the world in which teachers do their work, one that is informed by information gathered from sources both within and outside of the education sector. This endeavour is a shared responsibility among teacher organization staff because keeping an eye on the “everything” leaves no time for anything else. I did discover, however, that in some cases, the novelist and the journalist can be better guides to the future than any number of experts.

Teacher organizations belong to their respective members, who express their vision of and aspirations for their organizations through a variety of democratic processes. One of the most important tasks of a chief executive officer is to translate those political decisions into action through administrative mechanisms. This process can be very simple or extremely complex depending on the desired outcomes and the talent and skills of the organization’s staff. Leaders who want to closely manage these transactions tend to be viewed with suspicion because the element of trust, so vital to a leadership role, is immediately called into question. My tendency was to enunciate the direction as clearly as possible and to stand clear of the ensuing process unless asked to intervene by those undertaking the task. That was the situation I desired when I was charged with responsibilities and one I assumed most of my colleagues also preferred.

Because we’ve been asked to identify people who have had an impact on our own visions and styles of leadership, I must acknowledge my father who, despite being hard of hearing, was an action figure when chaos prevailed. He organized the evacuation of buildings when fires broke out, cleared roadways of traffic when accidents occurred, and generally took charge when others stood by or were paralyzed with fear. He was just an ordinary citizen cool under fire. I hope some of that style rubbed off.

Dr. Charles Hyman joined Association staff in 1972 following initial teaching service in Quebec. He served as an executive staff officer in Teacher Welfare, becoming coordinator in 1986. He became associate executive secretary in 1988 and executive secretary in 1999. He retired from this role on December 31, 2002.