“I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.” -Socrates
As a philosophy major, I came of intellectual age reading about Socrates. Plato’s Apology held a spot on my bedside table, and I knew the theoretical importance of questioning the status quo. I took this to my work when I became a teacher. Seldom a pain (I hope), and never afraid to ask questions, in my years in the classroom I like to believe that the questions I asked helped to make the schools where I worked better places.
I’m a principal now, and theory has been replaced by practice. I find myself the state that Plato wrote about, and am at my wisest when I embrace those around me who nip at my proverbial mane.
It’s not always easy.
Not long ago an administrator I respect was kidding me about some questioning I was handling around an issue at my school. It wasn’t anything life altering, but emotions were high, and a resolution was as yet unfinished. “Doesn’t it bug you?” he asked. I didn’t let him see any exasperation I might have felt; irritation is a quality best ironed out of the fabric of leadership. “Every oyster,” I told him, “needs a little sand to make a pearl.”
And I meant it. One of the biggest challenges of leadership is making the theoretical practical, of taking what we know to be true and applying it to the work that we do. Those who question us and the decisions we make, have the capacity to help us see things differently, entertain different points of view, and either set upon a better option, or strengthen our resolve.
Henry the Fifth’s Crispin’s Day speech, the favorite source of inspiration for literature majors everywhere, began with a doubter. Without Westmoreland wishing for better odds in battle, the king would have been denied a platform to speak to his band of brothers, rousing in them a fervor to do great deeds.
This isn’t to say that we want a school full of doubt, or cynicism, or complaint; that wouldn’t make pearls, just clam shells full of dirt.
Individuals who rake muck for selfish reasons or with simple conflict as the end in mind do little to contribute to any institution or society. Their raging against the machine can be hollow and mean spirited, and communities are smart to guard against such rabble. But proper gadflies aren’t simply cynical or working to undercut those around them. At their best, those who question what we do and why we do it have as their motivation the good of the whole.
Those willing to challenge us provide us with the opportunity to explain ourselves and our position clearly, to them, to all, and even to ourselves. The level of frustration that can come from having to take time to lay out reasons for decisions, justify positions, or clarify vision is well worth the product of transparency, clarity, and true leadership.
Gadflies don’t make our lives easier, but if we engage with the ideas they bring forward, and rise to meet the challenges they present, they make us better.