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Convocation 2015: The Challenge of Leadership

As we gather together as a community for the first time this year I want to spend a few moments to reflect on leadership – and what it might mean for you as a student, a member of the community and a citizen of the world.

When His Majesty founded King’s he wanted to create a different kind of school: one that was diverse, inclusive and welcoming of all students, as well as a school that would, in the words of our mission, “prepare young people for leadership.”

What, exactly, is leadership? Can everyone here, in this room, be a leader? Can a ninth grade student new to King’s exercise the same kind of leadership as a senior? As a member of the faculty?  As the headmaster? Do girls have the same opportunity for leadership as boys? Isn’t leadership something that is only available to the select few – those who are elected, appointed or who assume positions of authority?

As someone who has worked in schools all of his life, I have come to believe that everyone has the opportunity to lead, and that this is particularly true of students at King’s. I believe that each of you has the power to realize, and bring to life, His Majesty's vision for a different kind of school – one that is characterized by kindness and humanity, by honesty and integrity, and by deep engagement.

Noam Chomsky is a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a prolific scholar. He is the winner of the Kyoto Prize for Science. He's also a powerful, tireless and often eloquent advocate for human rights, for the voiceless and dispossessed. A number of years ago a journalist asked Chomsky how he came to be an activist. It was, he said, something he learned at school. This was the story he told.

He was standing on the playground, watching as a group of students cruelly bullied another student – taunting him, pushing him, humiliating him. This had been going on for some time and the boy was helpless to stop it. As he watched, Chomsky decided to act, and he did an amazing –  and an amazingly simple – thing. He stepped forward through the circle of students that had surrounded the boy and took a position beside him. He did not say a thing. He simply stood beside him, shoulder to shoulder. And the bullies, surprised and dumfounded, stopped.

I want you to think about the principle actors in that story. There are, of course, the bullies. We have all known what a bully is. You may have encountered them at other schools as well as, I suspect, online. Bullies, it is worth noting, are not always children: I have encountered many bullies in my professional life.

There are also the bystanders – those boys who did not participate in the bullying but who stood by and watched.

And then there is the young Chomsky who broke the circle and stepped forward. Chomsky’s decision is not, of course, the heroism of a Hector or Achilles, but it is heroic nonetheless – and it is a kind of heroism that is available to all of us.

There are, a wise person once told me, three ways for you to exercise power. You can abuse the power you have, you can refuse to use it all, or you can use it actively, creatively and in the service of something noble. Three choices: one decision.  

First, the abuse of the power – that is the story of Chomsky’s playground bullies and of all those, throughout history and in the world today, who demean, mistreat and persecute others.

Second, you can refuse to use the power that you have at all: you can be passive, apathetic, disengaged. You can become a spectator. This is the story, unfortunately, of all too many people, of all those who stand idly by even when in the presence of something they know to be terribly wrong. We should begin the year, as members of this community, recognizing that doing nothing is itself a kind of action.   

Finally, like the young Chomsky, you can use the power you possess for good. You can take positive action to make your classes, your dorms, your teams, the school and this community stronger, more dynamic and more humane.

Our guiding principles, particularly the vales of respect and responsibility, can be of service here – to all of us. At the recent United Nations Forum on Youth, Peace and Security hosted at King’s, United States Secretary of State John Kerry, in his video-taped remarks to the delegates, said that perhaps the greatest challenge facing the world today is “dealing constructively with difference” – with the differences of nationality, religion, race, ethnicity and all the other differences that can potentially divide us. You may not have not created, but you have certainly inherited, a world riven by racial conflict, sectarian hatred and violence.

We stand opposed to those forces. You and your teachers come from across Jordan and the world, from all cultural backgrounds and religious faiths. We embrace and cherish the great diversity of this room, we take responsibility for the culture of the school, and we commit to creating, individually and collectivity, a community where each of us is free to discover our best selves, to take risks and to learn.

Nothing is more important to me as headmaster than how you treat one another. Kindness, generosity, openness to difference – striving towards those goals is a profoundly important form of leadership in today’s world that is available to each of us. But only if you are willing to step forward, courageously, through the crowd, and affirm those values to knit us together as a community.

Let each of us – and all of us together – use all of our power to make this school a place of humane learning, kindness and respect for all.

Last updated
November 2, 2016