There was a bomb threat at a small private school recently. The head of school received the threat on Tuesday afternoon for Wednesday. She immediately alerted law enforcement and gathered the appropriate group of leaders at the school and then contacted the parents to let them know school was cancelled on Wednesday (out of “an abundance of caution”) while they dealt with the threat. The local police and FBI swept the school with bomb-sniffing dogs multiple times and even had a helicopter fly overhead to inspect rooftops. They identified the perpetrator and made sure the school was safe (and swept again) before reopening school on Thursday.
On Thursday morning, the head of school held a special assembly for parents and explained what had transpired in as much detail as law enforcement officials would allow her to. She then opened the floor to questions—and that’s when the real explosions occurred. Parents criticized her actions and motivations. They thunderously applauded each other’s accusations and tried to derail the meeting with emotionally charged diatribes. I will stop here to tell you why I am recounting this story.
This is a story about leadership.
No matter how much the head of school did right and how high she prioritized the safety of the children and how much she communicated with the parents, it wasn’t enough. Nobody said, “Wow, that must have been a tough situation for you and you handled it well.” Instead, they focused on themselves, raising one complaint after another about how little they were involved in the situation.
This is a story about trust.
While the school leaders were managing the situation on Tuesday night, one parent called the local TV station to send reporters in to spy on what was going on and broadcast it for everyone to see. This raised the question: why was there so little trust? Was it the leader who was not trustworthy or was it the parents who weren’t able to trust? I think it was the latter.
This is a story about control.
People who have a high need for control aren’t able to trust others. Our society currently encourages people to have a high need for control by drawing attention to everything we don’t control, like natural disasters, terrorism, and aging. We run around in such a panic that we crave control and many of us end up trying to control things we can’t, like our children, their teachers, and even their bosses.
It’s time to loosen the grip. Yes, it would have been a tragedy if a bomb had detonated at the school and hurt children, but it didn’t, and it couldn’t have because they closed the school. They got police, FBI, dogs, and helicopters to ensure the safety of the school. They did a good job. It’s time we get hold of ourselves and learn to let go and trust others. We can’t control everything, and we can’t control most things. But we can control ourselves. And we need to, if not for our own well-being, for everyone else’s sake.
Look at what the anxiety caused in this situation. On Thursday, by total coincidence, someone inadvertently set off the fire alarm at the school. The children were so stressed out they ran around and screamed and hid under desks. Why do you think they were so stressed out? Because the parents were out of control.
Anxiety is rampant right now among children and adults in our society. According to the New York Times Magazine, hospitalization for teen suicide has doubled in the past ten years and so has the number of college freshmen who feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.
The Millennial generation of adults has the highest level of anxiety of any generation to date. In fact, approximately one in five Millennials report experiencing depression, compared to 16 percent of Generation X employees and 16 percent of baby boomers, according to Bloomberg BNA. This is no laughing matter. Anxiety and depression wreak havoc on health and can lead to drug use and suicide.
We as leaders, parents, and adults need to take a deep breath, learn to trust, and role model composure for the people of the next generation. The stakes are too high not to.