Know Which Hill We’re Willing to Die On

Are you willing to lose a job you love in order to defend your principles and values and stand up for what you believe in?

We can safely predict nearly all of us would absolutely vow to defend the principles and values which make up our integrity. Yet, the answers become blurred for many of us once we are thrust into this very type of situation.

Unfortunately, in our current times many teachers are facing the predicament of determining whether they know which hill they’re willing to die on.

Utilizing one of the ideas we discussed in part one of our series on The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, we must use the tool of thinking gray because this is not a black and white issue. Steven Sample, who authored the idea of knowing which hill we’re willing to die on as well, intended this to be a figurative idea, although it can take on a literal meaning during the COVID pandemic.

This idea can help us solidify how to make a stand when we face circumstances which threaten our integrity in our classrooms and schools.

Effective Leadership vs. Good Leadership

One of the first decisions we need to make in order to know which hill we’re willing to die on is to determine what kind of leader we want to be. Sample explained the difference between effective leadership and good leadership. The bottom line of effective leadership is production and getting things done. Initially, we might think, of course, we all want to be effective leaders. Except, our production and things we get done may not be good on a moral scale.

You could claim Adolf Hitler was an effective leader for everything he accomplished. Christopher Columbus was productive in finding new lands, but he was also productive in cutting off the hands of natives who didn’t bring back the gold they were sent to find. It’s not just about the knowledge or the skills we possess. It’s about what we do with them.

On the other hand, good leadership is characterized by adherence to moral values while laboring towards goals and progress. If we are only concerned about being an effective teacher, then teaching to the curriculum standards will be our most important objective. However, if we believe our most important job is to provide our students with a compass, then being a leader who is true to our principles and moral values will be our main priority.

Yet, the definition of what is good and bad in terms or morality is highly subjective according to each person who attempts to judge a leader. If we’re not sure about this, all we have to do is ask someone their opinion on the current President of the United States.

So if the definition of good leadership is so ambiguous, how do we know where to start our journey to not just be an effective leader in our classroom, but a good one as well?

Look at Our Heart

According to Steven Sample, we begin our search to discover the hill we’re willing to die on by reflecting on the moral beliefs we hold in our heart and being aware of where those beliefs come from. They may come from our religious upbringing, our educational environment, or the family experiences of our childhood. However, we need to test them to ensure they are truly the principles and values we believe in so we can stand strong when the winds of adversity blow in.

Sample also provided the following questions in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership to help guide us in our search:

  • How much ground can I yield and still be true to my moral core?
  • How far can I be pushed before I will need to walk away from my duties? 
  • Are there some battles that I should be willing to lose in order to try to win other more important victories for the organization or cause or group that I am leading?
  • What is the particular hill (if any) from which I will never retreat, and in defense of which I am willing, if necessary to sacrifice everything?

Answering these questions does not guarantee we will execute our beliefs and live by principles in the heat of the moment. But not doing the work up front to be aware of the principles and values which make up our integrity almost guarantees we will cave to the pressure.

Be Cautious

Sample also cautioned leaders with two other important points. First, it is not necessary to reveal the location of the hill we’re willing to die on once we discover it. People will assuredly use it against us and manipulate the situation to push us toward that hill. Second, while it may be our duty to hold strongly to our moral beliefs, we must also understand the people around us may have views which differ sharply from ours. We see a great example of this in the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She explained how Abraham Lincoln organized his cabinet with political rivals who not only held different views, but considered themselves far superior to the President.

This is one of the greatest leadership skills we can acquire in our current state of world affairs. Our leadership will thrive if we can be solid in knowing our integrity and living by those morals, while at the same time respecting the differing beliefs of those around us.

Being Fully Human

These questions concerning our search for the hill we’re willing to die on are not easy ones to answer. And they are even harder to execute once we are truly faced with the possibility of losing our position, whether through our own choice or a choice made by others. I have the badge of honor of being fired from a position which I loved, one I poured my heart into, and one in which I thought I was called to be in…not because I did something wrong, but instead because I stood up for what I believed in.

Have you ever been in this situation? If you’re not sure, then you probably haven’t because the knot in your stomach and the racing of your heart is something you will never forget.

But these are also the situations which provide the opportunity to be fully human and strive to reach our greatest potential. Although they are not fun, they can help us achieve our most important objective in educating young people…providing them with a compass to live a successful life. This is a lesson which far outweighs any math formula or science experiment we can teach.

There is no rulebook on how to lead in such times of uncertainty, but developing our leadership skills through an inside-out process will help us make a difference in the lives of our students no matter what circumstances we face in the world. We just need to know which hill we’re willing to die on and, when the time comes, make a stand to defend it…even if it requires a sacrifice.

Because if we aren’t willing to lose something to defend our integrity, do we really have any integrity to begin with?

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