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Commentary: Joplin's leadership lesson in time of crisis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2012 - The Joplin community has been richly blessed by an outpouring of support from our neighbors across our state and this great nation. Immediately after being knocked down by an EF-5 tornado last spring, volunteers and resources poured into Joplin to help us get back on our feet. I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people who gave of their hearts when we needed a hand. We could not have done it alone, and we can’t thank you enough.

I’ve reflected a lot on what has happened since May 22. It is inspiring to me how people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs converged on our community and worked together to help us overcome one of the worst natural disasters in America’s history. We’ve worked hard, side-by-side, and we have made great progress.

In education we teach more than just reading, writing and math. We also teach our children to work together, support one another and to be compassionate. When there is a problem to be solved, we teach them to sit down together and figure it out by listening and being respectful of one another’s opinion. After all, everyone has a right to be heard, because you never know, you might just learn something that changes your perception of a problem, understand someone else’s point of view, or even reframe a core belief.

Listening to seek understanding is a higher order skill, a life skill we teach our children.

As a dad, I worry a lot about what the future holds for my children. Not because of anything they are doing wrong. My children are bright, they work hard in school, and I’m very proud of them.

I’m more worried about us, the adults. I worry we have forgotten how to listen, really listen. I worry about whether we seek to understand one another as we try to unravel complex problems on a global scale. What we have learned in Joplin is there is no problem that can’t be solved so long as we work together, interdependently, toward a common goal. We came together when we could have easily fallen apart.

What our country is experiencing is not unlike what we experienced in Joplin. We became vulnerable at 5:41 p.m. on May 22, 2011. The natural disaster we experienced has brought out the best in human kind. Our strength in character as a community came from our ability to support one another and to graciously accept the support and advice from people we had never met. We were faced with adversity unlike anything we had every seen. It was our time to step up, and we did.

We have a crisis of an EF-5 proportion in our country. It is a crisis of leadership. Our strength in character as a nation is dependent upon elected officials at the local, state and federal level putting personal agendas and political career goals aside and doing what is best and what is right for our communities, our state and our country.

To our elected officials, I ask that you take time to listen, really listen. Find your common ground and work together, side-by-side, to unravel the complex problems facing our vulnerable nation. We are counting on you to do as we have done in Joplin. It’s your time to step up.

C.J. Huff, PhD., is superintendent of schools in Joplin.