In the eight months it took journalist Shannon A. Mullen ’97 to write her book “In Other Words, Leadership,” the first-time author found herself thinking back – again and again – to her time as a student at Holderness School.
“I thought intensely of Holderness while working on this project,” Mullen said from her home in mid-coast Maine, in between stops on her book tour. “I came to be able to articulate something that I’ve come to understand since I left there.”
That something is, in a word, leadership. It’s a concept that was top of mind for the high school-aged Mullen, who aspired to become one of Holderness School’s vaunted senior leaders. It’s also the animating theme of “In Other Words, Leadership” which tells the true story of a young mother, Ashirah Knapp, who sent weekly handwritten letters of support to Maine Governor Janet Mills during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The book offers a fascinating window into a fraught 12-month period when the governor imposed unprecedented public health restrictions on her state – restrictions that often drew vitriolic criticism. The book, which weaves Knapp’s letters with the governor’s own letters and private journal entries, presents a story of civility, compassion, and connection in the face of fear and division. It’s also a powerful meditation on leadership, and the burdens that come with it.
For Mullen, the new book is simply the latest fascinating story in a career filled with them. In 2002, just a few years after graduating from Holderness, Mullen became the Washington correspondent for New Hampshire Public Radio. In the two decades since, she has been a regular contributor to public radio programs such as American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and has published stories in The New Yorker and a host of other major publications. She also hosts a podcast, “Character,” in which she interviews character actors, and founded an independent production company, Broad Reach Productions, which develops projects for the stage, screen, and spoken word.
So when Mullen met Gov. Mills during the spring of 2021 and learned about the letters, she knew she'd found an interesting story. “I asked if I could read them and she [Gov. Mills] let me read them,” Mullen said. “I laughed; I got a little teary. I remembered so many things about the pandemic that I’d forgotten. And I said ‘The world needs to see these letters.’”
What made the letters so compelling?
“I was hearing people who were tired of division and feeling powerless – and here was this woman who sought unity and believed in her own consequence enough to write letters to her governor,” Mullen said.
“It’s the simplest thing. We’re all telling ourselves ‘What could I, one person, possibly do to help all these things that are wrong with the world?’ This woman didn’t do that. She said, ‘Here’s one little thing I can do, and I’m going to do it.’”
At its core, the book shows that leadership can come in many different forms – whether it’s a governor making difficult choices for her constituents, or a mother in rural Maine writing weekly letters. Mullen points to the final letter Gov. Mills sent to Knapp as that first pandemic year came to an end. “She wrote back to her and said ‘Thank you for all the things you’ve been doing – keeping your children’s education going, teaching them the value of an inquisitive mind, helping keep a small business afloat, helping people in your community. In other words, leadership,’” Mullen said, quoting the letter. “And I thought, what a beautiful title. Here’s the governor of Maine, telling this woman, who just helped her through a hard time, celebrating her leadership.”
That realization – that leadership can come in many different forms – stirred up powerful memories for Mullen. She penned much of the book in Campton, NH, just a few miles down the road from Holderness School; as she wrote, kept thinking back to her own quest to become one of the school’s senior leaders.
“All I wanted in the world when I was at Holderness was to be elected one of those - and I never did,” Mullen said, recalling the 70-year Holderness tradition in which students – without campaigning or making speeches – elect their leaders based on the qualities of fairness, initiative, and empathy. It’s a process that leads to some unexpected results. “That’s one of the things that makes Holderness unique – that the people who were chosen for school president and some of the most important leadership positions, when I think back on it now, were kind of a surprise,” Mullen says. “They weren’t the ones who were seeking it. Leadership is a burden.”
Mullen freely admits that she wouldn’t want to shoulder Gov. Mills’ burden of governing Maine during a once-in-a-century pandemic. And, with the benefit of hindsight, she says she wouldn’t have relished the burden of leading her fellow Holderness students. Instead, Mullen found her own way to lead – by becoming a respected journalist who tells important stories to a national audience.
“It took everything that I started to study and be confused by and not quite understand as a high school student, and brought it sort of full circle,” Mullen said of writing her book.
“I was able to celebrate both the role I have in the picture, and what leaders do.”