Over the past 20 years, I have had the privilege being led by several extremely effective and high capacity leaders. One of those leaders is a remarkable woman named Chris Sloane. She was the principal of Greece Olympia High School, in Rochester, New York for nearly 15 years. She poured her heart and soul into the students and staff of Olympia. She assumed the principalship of the school at a pivotal moment in its history. The socio-economic reality of the community was in a tailspin, as many local businesses were failing and the average annual income was plummeting. Subsidized housing became common place in a town that had long been solidly middle class.
The faculty was blindsided by the changes in the student population as the poverty rate rose from single digits, to around 60% in less than a decade. A culture of well behaved classrooms with college focused students, slowly gave way to frequent fights, defiant learners, uninvolved parents and disillusioned teachers. Chris arrived at Olympia in a moment of crisis. However, it is through crisis that great leadership is often forged.
Chris knew what all great leaders know. She could not tackle this crisis in isolation. She knew she couldn’t swap out the old faculty for a new one, like so many education reform initiatives suggest, if she would succeed in turning things around. She knew a great team of leaders was needed to forge the future she envisioned.
She accomplished this in an intentional and strategic way. She began by developing the leaders around her. She invested deeply in the teachers already on the faculty and throughout the school district. She identified people with leadership potential and challenged them to grow and develop as leaders. She didn’t look for people that were like her, rather she gather a diverse team of strong personalities. She worked closely with the head of the teacher union, coaches, assistant principals, teachers, support staff and other influence leaders to build a guiding coalition. All the while, she maintained a laser like focus on what she referred to as “doing whatever it takes to help students.”
I was privileged to have a front row seat as one of the young leaders she invested in over the years. My leadership and development has been influenced by her as much as anyone else in my life. More importantly, over the ensuring years she facilitated the transformation of the culture and ethos of Olympia from one of fear, confusion and despair, into a place of hope.
I have become convinced that her success is largely attributed to her ability to attract, lead and be influenced by strong leaders who were markedly different from her own style, strengths and abilities.
It is important to note that putting strong personalities on the same team and getting them moving in the same direction is not a simple task. Strong leaders have strong personalities. Leaders with strong personalities often disagree, argue and find themselves in conflict. It is at this precise point that many teams begin to disintegrate and lose efficacy. Doris Kerns Goodwin popularized the understanding of this leadership principle in her book “Team of Rivals” in which she chronicled how President Abraham Lincoln gathered around himself the best minds to create his presidential cabinet. He actually appointed onto his cabinet some of his fiercest opponents. Why? Because they were the best minds and most influential leaders for the positions. His genius was in choosing to invite diverse leaders on to his team and helping reconcile their differences to forge a path to the desired future together. The result for Lincoln and the United States of America was a complete reorientation of the cultural and political realities of the day. Lincoln’s ability to initiate and engage in reconciliation with those who opposed him literally altered the trajectory of our nation leaving a legacy that has endured to the present day.
Frequently, while a teacher and an Assistant Principal under the leadership of Chris Sloane, I would be a part of meetings and conversations where tempers would rise up and strong leaders would disagree. At times great offense was incurred. Time and again, Chris would bring the disparate parties together and foster reconciliation. Without attention to this critical leadership skill, I do not believe she would have been able to accomplish what Olympia needed. Her ability to lead in this way has changed how an entire generation of students are being educated.
Recently I attended a celebration, honoring Chris as she handed the leadership of the Olympia over to one of the leaders she had developed over the years. Literally hundreds of people showed up to honor her. Throughout my time in education, I have never seen so many lives impacted by one leader in such a profound and personal way.
Great leaders understand that reconciliation is an essential part of leading well in any context. Great leaders also understand that reconciliation does not happen naturally or by accident. There are simple, yet challenging steps that must be taken by those who want to lead well in the face of strife and division. I have watched great leaders engaged each of these steps. While painful and arduous, each step is essential to ensure reconciliation occurs.
If you want to get One Grip Higher today… lead like Chris. Fill your team with personalities.
In our next post we will look at the story of Ezra in the Bible and analyze the steps required for effective reconciliation.