Underwater Mountain Movers: What we can learn about leadership through ocean floor topography

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces.


Today I had the delight of sitting in meaningful and lingering conversation with two very different leaders.

One is running for office in Baltimore. The other is cozied in a corner office in Annapolis. Both are committed to education, empowerment of young people, and positive community transformation. But one will try to move mountains in the politically charged atmosphere of Baltimore governance, the other will quietly create continental drift in a Range on the ocean floor. One will be a household name. The other you would likely never know even if you were in a room with her.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where we (read I) should stand in order to leverage change. Today I was reminded that we can be catalysts for change in both spaces of high visibility and low visibility. That the quality and impact of societal and system transformations are not necessarily proportional to how visible their architects are.

You don’t have to see the catalyst to see the effect.

Today I saw a quiet leader for the first time.

I don’t mean I had never seen this person before.

I don’t mean that I had never seen a quiet leader before.

I mean I genuinely SAW a person I’ve known for years for who they truly are and the power they actually wield.

You’d never know it if you met her for the first time. She’s a listener. Self-deprecating. Waits a long time before she offers her own thoughts. Affirms those around her. Works tirelessly behind the scenes. Quietly accrues trust from all directions.

She’s an Ocean Bottom Mountain mover. You see a rogue wave, wonder at its passing, and then let it slip your mind as it moves beyond the horizon. All the while, under the radar, she has re-shaped the landscape in ways that will affect the currents for years to come.


A popular aphorism that may have been said by Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, or some other wise sage goes something like, “There’s no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

If I see a success or transformation I know I had a hand in facilitating, do I need to claim credit? Why? What does the effect lose by my calling dibs? What do I lose in the present or the future if people don’t know my involvement?

These questions will be my companions keeping me honest and self-auditing as I myself attempt to work towards the greater good.

Today I realized someone I mistook for a starfish has been a Titan all along. I sat during and after the meeting humbled by this realization. Grateful to have finally glimpsed the long reach of this gentle and benevolent entity. Honored to observe the secrets of her subtle yet persistent influence.

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces. They may not always get the credit, but we are forever changed by their impact.

Declaration of SIG-dependence

Students are gathered in an outdoor pavilion at Arlington Echo hunched over a piece of poster paper. They are laughing, talking, calling out ideas and corrections while one student tries to get it all down.

“This is like the Declaration of independence,” declares one.

“Yeah, because Signature emancipates us.”

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This is a two day overnight trip for Signature Program Seniors. I have taught many of them since they were freshmen. The final activity of this reflective retreat is drafting a definition of what “Signature” is. Despite the fact that almost every student has declared the impact of this program on their lives, our greatest struggle has been and remains DEFINING it.

Five years ago I stood with a different group of students. Before the Signature Program was developed, it began with a “global cohort” of students and a question of “What should education offer to the local, national, and global community?”

Now, five years later, a different group of students are under the same pavilion on the other side of the question. They have been a part of program that has taken them to local farms and to international exchange programs. They have started diversity clubs and political internships. They have created curriculum, videos, conferences, and all manner of other real world products and projects swirling around their signature experience.

I am their teacher…but they have made me obsolete. Finally.

As they begin to string together a statement of purpose, I watch them with pride but also with poignancy, because I know something they don’t:

I am leaving them.

One week from now, I’m going to sit them down in the Library and tell them that I am taking a new job at a new school where I can bring and build Signature with a new group of students. I know they’re going to be shocked…but I have set them up to see they’ve outgrown me anyway.

Earlier in the week, under the same pavillion, I asked them to draft an annual plan for signature. What would they do personally and collectively by the end of the year? What were their goals and how would they get there. 10 minutes into the activity, I gave them a hypothetical crisis.

“The new Superintendent has declared he does not believe in Signature Programs and thinks they are a wasted investment. How does this change your plan?”*

10 minutes later I gave them a second crisis…this one less hypothetical.

“Your Signature teacher has been poached by the department of education to work on global citizenship education nationally. How does THIS change your plan?”

Arlington crisis

In both instances, the students responded that their plans were not dependent on even these seemingly cataclysmic scenarios. In the words of one of the students: “Sig is an institution. Not a single teacher/administrator will prove the downfall of the entire program.”

The following week when I announced that I was leaving, I hung up their plans and their words declaring the longevity of the Signature way.

Many of them wrote me emails and letters in the weeks to come. My favorite came from a student who over the course of the 4 page hand written note went from grief and anger to acceptance and confidence…with just a touch of doubt:

“I feel like signature is still a baby. The first sig completer class hasn’t even graduated, yet your’re leaving…so soon…But maybe it’s the best time…Even though I’m broken and sad, I know Signature will not die. We can’t let it. You’re forcing us to be strong. We have been ready for this all along, we just didn’t know it. Very clever of you to put that scenario in our activity at Arlington echo, then tie it to your announcement. Now I get it. Ha. I’m ready for this. Sort of. I guess.”

There were still tears. Still disbelief. Still anger. Still feelings of betrayal…but then on the other side there was strength. There was conviction. There was confidence that I was not the center of signature. THEY were.

When students at Arlington Echo finished their Declaration of SIG-dependence, they signed it and hung it on the marquee….where they hoped the visiting superintendent would see it.

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Julia ended her letter with a pledge. She wrote it for herself, but it belongs to all of us who have been touched by this thing we call “Signature.”

“I pledge to myself to myself and the program that I will do everything I possibly can to continue what we have been working so hard on.”

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

“People like you” can learn to listen, too. – By Sig-Senior Gabby Kopf

“Some people never listen… some people never let others talk… some people ruin the class for everyone.”

I took a breath and said, “Some people like me?”

“Gabby it’s not just you, it’s people like you.”

People like you.

For all my life I have been eager to show the world what I can do. I’ve always realized I behaved this way: a showoff, a know it all, a bulldozer, especially in class. However, until that day in Leadership class, I never realized how it could affect my classmates and friends.

Leadership II is a mandatory class for completion of Arundel’s Global Signature Program, which is a collection of classes and activities focused on community development and global citizenship. This program has been my home, a place for me to grow and learn about the world around me.

Class constitution...

That day in class we were collectively writing a syllabus to outline what we wanted to accomplish for the year. The students’ voices were finally being heard, or should I say a few students’ voices; only I and few others were actively participating in the conversation. To me, the majority of my peers appeared more or less uninterested. Our signature classes have always been a place of trust, comfort, and warmth so the cold feeling from many lively students was puzzling. Why didn’t the classroom vibe feel the same as before?

Mrs. Dziedzic stopped the lesson and asked the entire class what was wrong.
Kaitlin, a classmate who looked particularly apathetic, raised her hand and began letting out her frustrations about “some people” in the class. As I listened to her describe her feelings I felt more and more attacked. She was talking directly about me. The rest of the class joined in to address how they felt voiceless in a class that was meant to hear them. I felt so ashamed.

I couldn’t help but cry because I took that class in hopes of becoming a better leader, someone strong and successful without being overpowering, and I had become just the opposite. When I realized peoples’ perception of me differed from how I saw myself, I
knew I needed to adjust how I act in class .

When I went to Mrs. Dziedzic after class I asked, “What can I do to change?”

“Simple. Just listen.”

Just listening...

I went back to class the next day with a new mindset. I just sat and listened, but more than that, I listened for the right reasons. I found myself listening to understand, instead of just listening to reply. There was a huge difference that I never truly understood until Kaitlyn gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable, which facilitated my perceptions about what it means to be voiceless. This allowed me to become a more empathetic community member, and consequently, a better leader.

As I began to participate in class again with new purpose, I formed much stronger relationships with my friends in the class. Kaitlyn was courageous and spoke for those who felt voiceless, and no longer rolls her eyes when I speak. I stepped out of my comfort zone in order to better our class, and that laid the foundation for very strong friendships.

As I go on to form new relationships in my life; I will remember the way Kaitlyn felt about “Some People.”

Lifting us up...

Now I actively try to understand what people are saying. Being a good listener and proactive member of discussion does not only just apply to the classroom, but also as a co-worker, or a friend, or even a daughter. While there will always be situations in which our failures make us susceptible to self-doubt, it is important to make these moments generate motivation for personal growth. Moments like this inspire me to make each “failure” count.

The above guest blog was written by Gabby Kopf, a senior in the Community Development and Global Citizenship Program at Arundel High School in Maryland. She wrote it as her college admission essay…and she better get in.