Tuesday night I was listening to a couple of self-help gurus hold forth and wondering how their capsules of advice might apply to a new...

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Tuesday night I was listening to a couple of self-help gurus hold forth and wondering how their capsules of advice might apply to a new problem around here.

Actually what we have is not a new problem, but a self-renewing problem of leadership for the Seattle Public Schools. It’s not the only civic difficulty that could use some counseling, but it’s on the top of the pile at the moment.

I went to hear Susan Scott, author of “Fierce Conversations,” and John Graham, who wrote “Stick Your Neck Out,” the day Raj Manhas officially announced he will leave the school district’s top job when his contract ends next year.

A large number of the district’s 46,000 students are suffering from a significant performance gap that follows the same race and class lines of disparities around the country.

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Funding doesn’t match needs, and pockets of success seem to happen despite, rather than because of, the efforts of the greater system.

Faith in the district is low, though many people praise individual teachers or principals.

Multiple constituencies narrowly focused on their needs wrestle one another to the ground, allowing no one a chance to raise his head above the fray and take a more complete view without risking injury to his lower parts.

Every discussion of change becomes contentious.

Clearly help is needed.

The discussion I attended the other night at Richard Hugo House wasn’t about the district, but real wisdom tends to apply in multiple aspects of life.

Scott has spent years helping CEOs do their jobs better and transforming organizational cultures, getting rid of the bull stuff. She encourages people to engage in honest conversations that are also respectful of other people.

The simplest definition of a fierce conversation, she said, is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, enter the conversation and make it real. (There’s more information at www.fierceinc.com.)

That doesn’t mean yelling and name-calling. Maybe she should attend a school-board meeting and demonstrate the proper way to exchange ideas; spend the first 15 minutes of each meeting explaining how to be both civil and honest.

Emotions run deeper when schools are involved than they do in most other civic arenas. That’s understandable, but it is not a recipe for successful conversations.

“Take responsibility for your emotional wake,” Scott said. Be mindful of the consequences of your words. “There is no trivial comment.”

She said something else that applies: Each of us owns a piece of the truth.

In a puzzle as big as urban education, there are a lot of pieces, which instead of being fitted together to make a solution, get wielded as weapons.

Graham is part of The Giraffe Heroes Project (www.giraffe.org), which encourages people to speak up when that’s needed and to become leaders when they are needed.

He realizes most people aren’t going to stick their necks out for just anything, so he always asks what is most meaningful for you, because if something means enough to you, you’ll take risks for it.

Parents will take risks for their children, but who will take risks for other people’s children?

Every year a shameful proportion of the student population fails to get the education it deserves. There are teachers and principals and administrators who fail to do something about that. They have a million good excuses to hide behind.

There are parents and students who make life hard for teachers because they don’t know how to channel their anger and frustration.

There are parents who make the system work for their own children, but have nothing left to put toward raising the level of education for every child.

We all have a piece of the truth about what’s happening and most of us have a piece of the blame for what isn’t.

But the heaviest weight has to be carried by the school board and whoever is superintendent. It’s why they are there. They need to hold teachers and principals accountable and challenge parents and students when that is needed.

If they can’t stick their necks out, if they can’t listen openly and speak candidly, then there will be no transformation.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. More at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.