Leadership lessons on an Italian tour bus

A mother of a young teacher is asked to help chaperone a student trip across Italy. Along the way she thinks characteristics of leaders, and her life as a parent comes full circle in helping to inspire the next generation of leaders.

Max Rossi/Reuters/FILE
This file image shows the Crete Senesi, located in the Italian region of Tuscany to the south of Siena, consists of an untouched natural landscape of hills and woods.

As our bus rambles through the hills of Italy, 26 young women chatter in the up-tempo, slightly frenzied way high school girls do when the boys aren’t around. Soaking up a curriculum of Roman civilization and art history, punctuated by gelato stops, they chat and doze from Tuscany to Umbria, from Rome to Pompeii and beyond.

Overseeing the group is their Latin teacher. Serving as guide is their Latin teacher’s mentor, “The Professore.”  Filling in as chaperone is “Madre,” their Latin teacher’s mother – and that would be me.  There is no end to the adventures motherhood can hold.  You’re chaperoning your toddler’s preschool zoo trip one minute, and in the blink of an eye, talking about Michelangelo with that same toddler’s students.

O Dio mio – OMG!

It was on the road to Pompeii, I think, when my thoughts turned to the subject of leadership, and here’s why:  The previous day, the students had decided to perform, in the Latin which they had translated during the school year, the great Marcus Tullius Cicero’s First Oration against the treasonous Catiline.  They recited it in the heart of the very Roman Forum where Cicero himself had delivered the speech more than 2000 years before, and I began to wonder what it was about Cicero that caused him  to endure for so long as one of history’s great leaders. At the same time,  back in Washington, in our own spawning ground of political ideas, a perfect storm-like accumulation of problems – with Iraq, the Veteran Affairs scandal, immigration, the NSA, the IRS and such – were calling into question American leadership.  This happens when things go wrong, of course.  And finally – bus rides leaving plenty of time for reflection – I began to think about leadership within families, including my own.   

I couldn’t help wonder: 1) what constitutes good leadership; and 2 ) was there anything I could learn about it that would make me a better leader myself within the family responsibilities I now have – wife,  mother, mother-in-law,  potential grandmother, daughter, sibling, confidante, holiday organizer and such. At any stage of the life of a family, leadership can be confused with the kind of meddling commonly called helicopter parenting, the stuff that has you inserting yourself uninvited into your child’s homework or resume writing. But I’ve noticed that many mature families appreciate having the Madre available and engaged, and we shouldn’t be afraid of being that. 

Anyway, on the Italian bus I began asking around about leadership:  What constitutes an effective leader, whatever the context, be it family, nation, workplace, field trip?  Some ideas emerged:  that the effective leader needs to be patient, prudent, and able to listen and to understand and to consider the needs of all those in his care – even of the ones that aren’t the loudest.  That the leader be open to criticism, willing to learn from mistakes, able to distinguish what needs to be changed from what doesn’t.  And the leader should be willing to be isolated from the group, if need be -- to be disliked, even – in order to assert the authority needed to make tough decisions and stand by them.  

The parenting fad du jour can distract anyone from effective leadership, and that made me wonder about permanence, about which attributes have characterized good leadership historically.  As open as he was to negotiation, I can’t picture Cicero going back and forth with his four year-old about whether the BC version of Cheerios constituted dinner.  So I asked our guide, “Professore,” classics legend Henry Bender, PhD, who is a familiar presence at prep schools, colleges and universities on the East Coast.  He is now the Elizabeth B. Blossom Chair of Humanities Emeritus at the Hill School, a prestigious college preparatory school outside of Philadelphia.  In between watching the Italian vineyards glide past, and mulling with the Latin teacher, my daughter, which hotels would be most comfortable for next year’s group, Dr. Bender observed that Athena, the great goddess of wisdom, tends to be depicted with a sword, a shield, and a helmet. Through history, it is military distinction, more than anything else, that is associated with great leadership, he said, explaining that the key benefit of military training is that it affords “exposure to preparation for conflict.” This experience in preparation, not necessarily in battle or conflict itself, is key. 

“It teaches people not to be distressed by uncertainty – to be ready for conflict but not to expect it,” said Bender, adding that the readiness is not a license for paranoia, but a lesson in not being caught unawares and in not becoming unglued. Great leaders have this skill and teach it to those they lead, he said.

I must say, all this would have been really handy to know 30 years ago.  Expecting some conflict with the balky toddler or defiant teenager is simple enough.  But who could have anticipated the multitude of institutions, situations, and people a parent could potentially be unglued by over the years?

Thankfully, the unexpected can come in the form of gift as well as conflict.  Consider the invitation to roll through history with 26 high schoolers, watching your teacher-daughter demonstrate her own considerable leadership skills. 

 Quam mirable – how cool!   (That must be inscribed on a monument around here someplace.)

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