Everyone is talking about the movie “Waiting for Superman”, a powerful and alarming documentary about America’s failing public school system. The title “Waiting for Superman” comes from a quote in the film from educational reformer Geoffrey Canada where he states “one of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.” One of the themes is that there are great individuals working in the educational reform space, everyday “superheroes” that do amazing work in very challenging environments.

The solution to these issues and others that we face as a nation will not be solved by this “Superman” approach. Several leaders I know stated that once Barack Obama became President Obama that many of the issues that they were working on would be more easily solved. Some have stated, especially in this time of tough economic decisions, that they were hoping for a large funder to help revive their efforts. Having lived in poverty and made it out, I know that the mentality conveyed by Mr. Canada is one that many people living in poverty often have.

That causes need a saving-type of superhero like Superman is a flawed outlook. But, if we had to point to a superhero-type that the sector should be looking to, that model is the Greatest American Hero. For those that do not know this superhero, it is understandable (the show’s theme song has had more of a shelf life than the actual show, which only lasted for two years in the early 1980’s). The song made a resurgence in the 1990’s as George Costanza’s outgoing voicemail message.

The Greatest American Hero is centered around the main character, Ralph Hinkley. Ralph is a teacher of special education students who is determined to get through to them, much like the teachers in the Waiting for Superman movie. Ralph takes the class on a field trip to the desert and as they come back from the field trip later that night, the school bus breaks down.  As Ralph wanders the desert looking for help, he is visited by aliens, who have decided to endow him with superhuman powers to fight the battle against injustice and crime. To this end, they gave him a special suit and an instruction manual. Unfortunately, Ralph loses the instruction manual, and the show follows Ralph as he fights crime and learns how to use his new powers. Ralph obtains a support team that helps him as he works to fight crime and injustice.

As we think about the type of superheroes that we need in the sector, I would conclude that most of our organizational leaders look more like Ralph than Superman. They are ordinary people that were already doing great work. Like Ralph coming to his abilities as a teacher in the special education field, most nonprofit leaders start out working in the trenches.

Secondly, most nonprofit leaders do not come already equipped with laser vision, the ability to fly or even a special suit like Ralph.  We obtain our cape over time, and it becomes a more successful tool as a nonprofit leader gains more experience in the field. In addition, we don’t have access to an instruction manual and often learn the valuable truths of leadership as we go. Ralph’s comedic circumstances would often provide him knowledge for later crime fighting quests. I can think of my own comedic leadership war stories as a CEO that guided my work.

Overall, the sector has many superheroes and we need more. The superheroes we need are less like Superman and more like Ralph, ordinary people who are dedicated and find themselves suddenly in leadership roles. With a much talked about leadership gap on the horizon we need to support the important developing group of new leaders.


Read more stories by John Brothers.

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