A lesson in leadership from the Brother of classification
TODAY'S column contains a parable on the importance of leadership, courtesy of Brother Greg O'Donnell.
Br. O'Donnell is retiring at the end of this week after a decade as the principal at Damien (also the school's CEO since 2000) and 50 years as a Christian Brothers educator. Many of us who frequent this section of the paper also know him as a sports figure. He became famous (and infamous) in 2001 when he threatened to hold the Monarchs out of two games with Saint Louis; instead of taking a sure beating, Damien would forfeit instead. It was a bold move, one that could have blown up in his face -- and maybe almost did.
"In the United States of America," he said yesterday, "you play around with football -- I found this out a long time ago: You play around with football you're playing with dynamite."
But instead, he pulled it off, and something bigger happened, something better happened. Today, most of us think of Brother as the father of classification. Most of us, when we think of Br. O'Donnell, think of the underdog, and Damien's recent success.
It wasn't always so. Before Damien, he was principal at a school near Seattle, one, on the athletics fields, that was the opposite of the underdog. "We had a very strong football team, a very good team in terms of scoring points. We scored a lot of points," he said. A very good team.
"And the players on the team were arrogant," O'Donnell said. "I really didn't like it at all."
There was a big game in the big stadium -- like the championship played in Aloha Stadium, O'Donnell says. A great game, and his team was running away with it. You'd think the principal would be happy. But Br. O'Donnell was not.
"We got more penalties for poor conduct and everything," he said. "And I couldn't believe it. And I was embarrassed, sitting in the stands, watching our kids. They were flaunting, they were taunting. And the coach, he was a new coach. He didn't seem to do anything about it."
That night, as everyone celebrated, O'Donnell went back to the office. He started writing a letter of apology to the opposing school. Then a letter to the editor for the local paper, apologizing to the people of the state of Washington.
"And then I went and found Coach," Br. O'Donnell recalled. "And I said, 'Coach, I did what I have to do. I hope you'll do the same. We don't ever want to see that conduct among our players again.' And we didn't see it again."
There it is. Leadership. And reading this you might think that the point of this story is that leadership is grand gestures and laying down the law. Sometimes. But mostly, no.
He only had to lay down the law because he'd remembered something another brother had said to him long ago:
"Wherever you go as principal," O'Donnell was told (or coach, or general manager, or teacher, or boss), "the school is going to reflect what you think is important. What you think is important will happen without you even knowing it."
Without you even knowing it; the tone is set at the top.
When Br. O'Donnell was first told this he said it, and yesterday he said it again: "Wow, that is so true. That is so true."
It is. That's the importance of leadership. It's that subtle. And that powerful, too.