In Memory of Steve Sexton: When a Beloved School Leader Passes Away

Today, Steve Sexton, one of the great leaders of our time, is being memorialized. If you have not heard of him, know this: he was a transformational school leader who contributed an immeasurable amount to children and to interrupting inequities; he was a husband to Jenna, another great school leader, and a devoted father to three little ones; he was also a friend, a colleague, and someone I coached during the final years of his leadership of Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA.

My heart aches as it sinks in that Steve Sexton is no longer alive. While I traverse the solitary landscape of grief, let me tell you a little about Steve, for acknowledging their contributions is how we keep alive the memory of those who have passed away.

Steve and I first crossed paths in 2001, when he and his wife, Jenna, were incubating Lighthouse Community Charter School (LCCS). They were not part of a charter network, just one K-12 school striving to serve Oakland kids. I watched over the years as LCCS refined their practices and received recognition from far and wide for their, including in 2013, being named a California Charter School of the Year.

Shortly after that Steve got in touch with me interested in receiving coaching. My first response was a bout of insecurity. I’d spent many years coaching site leaders and I love coaching administrators, but I’d almost exclusively coached new and struggling principals, never a leader as exceptionally skilled as Steve. I had always liked Steve, always felt comfortable with him. He was the kind of person who made you feel immediately at ease, even though you knew he was brilliant, perhaps, and deeply thoughtful. I humbly accepted the request.

And so the coaching began, and of course, I can’t tell you what we talked about because coaching is confidential. But here’s what I can tell you: the inside of Steve matched the outside. His integrity went as far as the eye could see and as far as the ear can hear. His commitment and care–for kids and adults–was real, the kind of real that inspires me, that I crave, that I seek out in others. His thoughtfulness, receptivity to feedback, and his humility was rare and boundless. His was committed to empathy and intentionally cultivated compassion for others. Steve could see the immediate and the distant future; he managed patience and urgency with grace.

And he got stuff done. His school worked. Kids learned. And graduated. And went to college. And returned to work at Lighthouse.

Have you known a leader like this? Have you worked with a leader like this?

It changes your life when you do. You see that the seemingly impossible can be possible. When you coach someone like this, you get insight into how this happens–into the thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, ways of being, and daily practices of a transformational leader. It’s like a glimpse into a finely tuned machine, a device that changes lives, and you can see all the components and you think: Ah ha! This kind of leadership can be done! We can transform our schools.

The last time I saw Steve, weeks before brain cancer ended his life, I showed him the cover of my next book, the topic of which is team development. Over the last couple of years, we’d talked so much about this topic because he was committed to strengthening the teams in his school. In our conversations, Steve had raised provocative questions that had pushed my thinking; the learning was mutual. The book took longer than anticipated, and along the way, he’d humorously nudge me, “Would you hurry up and finish that book? We need it!”

There are redwoods on the cover of this book. Oakland borders a redwood forest and both Steve and I had spent time hiking amidst these beautiful trees. In many redwood forests you’re likely to see circles of redwoods. They almost look as if they have been intentionally planted in a circular formation, but they were not. In the center of the circle of redwoods there is always a stump–you may not always see it because sometimes it’s been covered by forest detritus, but there was once a giant of a tree that grew there. When it died, from natural or unnatural causes, its roots shot up and became new trees. The circle of redwoods surrounds the giant tree that once was.

I explained to Steve that I’d selected this image because redwoods are a symbol of community and resilience, of the endurance of life and of the struggle that continues when our beloveds pass on.

“What you gave to your school, to our community, to Oakland kids will continue for generations,” I said. “Our efforts to transform the world will be sustained by the love you offered.”

I know this is true because I know where Steve took root within my own leadership. I know that my compassion is strengthened because of the glimpse I got into his practice. I know that my commitment to community is affirmed because of what I witnessed him create.

And still. I am amongst tens of thousands who will deeply miss his compassionate leadership, his sharp insights, his human form, his presence, warm smiles and hearty laughter and hugs.

SteveSexton.jpgSteve with graduating high school students last spring.