​Leadership as influence: The actions of Rosa Parks.

Senior Leaders Article

During our assembly, this week I asked our Senior Students to consider how their actions, attitudes and words impact on others, whether they make a positive difference to the lives of others?

You may have heard of a famous Australian singer and songwriter, Paul Kelly, he had a song titled from small things big things grow. The focus of the song was on how we can be a force of positive change in the world. I will give you a famous example of this. I’d like to tell you about the actions of an African-American woman 62yrs ago and the leadership she demonstrated. Her actions were not spectacular; she simply refused to move from her seat on the bus. Yet her actions have resonated throughout the world.

Her name is Rosa Parks. Hopefully, you have heard of her, she is the lady who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a bus so some white passengers could sit down, doesn’t sound like an outrageous act yet it had immense ramifications.

Rosa lived in the city of Montgomery in the state of Alabama in the USA. Approximately 60 years ago the laws of the state enforced the segregation of coloured and whites. That meant African Americans had to use separate schools, hotels, hospitals, toilets, parks, even telephone booths, and separate sections in libraries, and movie theaters often with separate ticket windows and counters.

Every day Rosa Parks caught the bus to and from work, segregation meant she had to sit in the coloured section at the back of the bus. On this occasion Rosa caught the bus home from work, paid her fare the same as white passengers, and sat in the section designated as for coloured.

However, the bus became full, several white passengers were standing so the bus driver stopped the bus, walked down the aisle, picked up the sign indicating the coloured section and moved it back a few rows to make available more seats for the white passengers. That meant Rosa had to get up out of her seat and walk to the back of the bus for a seat.

But Rosa didn’t move.

The bus driver told her to move she refused, the bus driver got the police, the police arrested Rosa and she spent the night in jail. She was charged with disorderly conduct, fined and released from jail. These laws were seen by many as unjust and an affront to human dignity. The next day the bus service throughout the city of Montgomery was boycotted by African Americans, this boycott lasted 381 days and resulted in the bus company losing considerable money. Rosa Parks appealed the conviction as she saw it as unreasonable but become stalled due to political and legal gamesmanship; eventually a similar appeal went to the US Supreme Court who ruled it was unconstitutional to enforce segregation of blacks and whites on buses.

Something that we see as perfectly reasonable today, took immense courage and conviction from Rosa Parks as to what she saw as the right course of action and the influence of her action was a catalyst for the eventual stripping away of laws supporting racial segregation in American society and her actions have become a unique symbol for the modern Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Parks was not from an affluent, well-educated background, she wasn’t spoken of as highly charismatic or engaging person, she didn’t hold any leadership position nor was she viewed by others as a natural leader, she was an ordinary person whose action had extraordinary influence.

Leadership can be an act, it can be a statement, but a unique component of leadership is influence, the ability to influence others, to help establish a course of action, even when you don’t know how it will finish. I’m not talking about manipulating people or hoodwinking them or lying to them, I’m talking about the power of influence to support a course of action to bring about a positive change in society and the lives of others, as we see with the example of Rosa Parks.

I encourage our Year 12 students to consider the influence they will have on others not only now but also throughout their lives. I would also encourage the Year 12 Leaders and our students to pause every so often and ask themselves, “Do our words and our deeds help make a positive difference in the lives of others, particularly with those people who may be weaker, less well off and more vulnerable than us?”

Leadership is not difficult, as each and every one will have influence through what you say and do, but sometimes it takes determination and courage.

To our Year 12 Leaders I sincerely wish you the best as student leaders of our school community and look forward to working with you this year. To our Year 12 students I encourage you to support these fine young men and women and to accept the key role you play individually in helping deepen the leadership culture at our school.

Best wishes for the year ahead.

Mr Craig Merritt