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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Would Atticus Do?

What Would Atticus Do?

By Maria Woodke
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

An endearing classic for many generations is the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  Lee’s characters are rich in development, offering a mosaic of qualities found in the spectrum of humanity, especially her main character, Atticus Finch. Personifying the author’s optimism in the potential of humanity, Atticus represents those qualities that we all wish more of us would possess … those transcending “self” toward something greater.

Atticus, a lawyer in 1930’s fictional Maycomb, Georgia, is intelligent, kind, scrupulous, and genuine.  He shows courage in taking the difficult, yet necessary actions of which others are too ignorant or afraid.  He leads with a quiet dignity … by example, both in his community and through the rearing of his children.   Atticus teaches his children to empathize and to find the best qualities in others, even when it is most challenging.  He teaches them one of the greatest habits that one can display over a lifetime – to forgive in advance.

In a particularly poignant scene, a man angry with Atticus has spit upon him for representing a black man in a rape trial.  To his daughter, Atticus says, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, 1960, p. 22).

Atticus could see that the man’s actions did not negate the good he had within; Atticus chose, rather, to forgive in advance, as the man acted only upon what he knew. He was not inherently evil; he was only as good as circumstance would allow. 

Just how powerful could be the combination of Atticus’s qualities if applied to K-12 leadership? 

Those of us successful in K-12 leadership often fancy ourselves reflective practitioners, analyzing aspects of our professional performance with effort while tucking away ideas for growth continually. When things get a bit personal, we admit hesitantly the possession of our hidden, pride-protected zones kept under lock and key, those stubborn areas inhibiting our abilities to delve satisfactorily into our actions … certainly into our motivations. 
We often proclaim, with conviction, “We are right!” with our foundations rocked when “found out” otherwise, especially by ourselves. Yet, the best in us recognize limitation; our most honest looking glasses acknowledge fallibility.  In these circumstances, the strongest peer into our reflections, saying, “Yep, that’s part of the me that makes, me, Me.”

Given our imperfections, what do we do when confronted with colleagues unlike ourselves, those who do not share our visions, philosophies, or beliefs about education, let alone what is best for students?  What do we do when challenged by those who make decisions that we believe will have adverse affects?  How do we act when individuals behave in a manner not befitting team, as we would captain such?

            More importantly, how does our authenticity measure up to that quintessential leader, Atticus Finch?  Where is the sweet spot between the leadership characteristics of altruism and utilitarianism, one that allows egoism to travel pensively, if not honestly?

Some of us are fortunate to say with confidence and truthful resolve that we display many of the qualities of Atticus’s character.  We are the ones who work successfully amidst the most difficult of relationships, those monthly, weekly, or even daily tests of our professionalism.
We are the ones who, more often than not, balance the “ism’s” above.

Yet, consider what Atticus said to Scout about truly understanding a person – the part about considering everything through the other person’s point of view: 

How many of us do that? 
How many of us lead while being not about us?
How many of us understand where others stand in terms of where they sit? 
How many of us are equipped to climb into skin-most-foreign and walk about? 

            Buckingham & Coffman (1999) offered advice on how we can disagree, agreeably, with colleagues.  They maintain that great managers know “people don’t change much” and urge managers not to “waste time trying to put in what was left out” but to “try to draw out what was left in,” for “that is hard enough” (p. 57). Many in our profession spend time trying to put into others what was left out and unwittingly discount much of what we should be doing to draw out their best.

Is that what Atticus would do?

            Buckingham & Coffman (1999) noted actions that could be interpreted as part of the playbook of Atticus Finch, although with our making this connection for them, post-publication. They said, “Great managers look inward.  They look inside the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivations of each person . . . these subtle differences guide them toward the right way to release each person’s unique talents into performance” (p. 141).
What would we see if we took the time for this inward focus?  Would we better be able to model in leadership what Atticus modeled to Scout through restraint, humanity, and parenthood?  Could we better forgive in advance?  How would our profession benefit if more often than not, we were to engage in what Buckingham & Coffman (1999) called the “conscious act” of “finding each person’s strengths and then focusing on those strengths” (p. 143)?

We believe that’s what Atticus would do, and we can’t think of a better act to follow. 


This Ed. Leadershop collaborative contribution is an outgrowth of an original piece by Maria Woodke that she prepared for the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  If you would like to contact Maria Woodke, or her 2nd author of this collaborative piece, Ryan Donlan, please feel free to do so at or They would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the influence of Atticus Finch on contemporary educational leadership.

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