Over the course of my 20-year tenure, I have had the privilege of knowing and observing five School District of Philadelphia CEOs. Each has been well-qualified, well-meaning and effective in different ways. They shared the following strengths:
- Courage: The willingness to tackle systemic challenges
- Practical Idealism: The belief that our dysfunctional system can become effective
- Commitment: Deep devotion to the children and unbridled zeal to serve them
- Collaboration: The wisdom to operationalize the concept of “it takes a village to raise a child” by forging partnerships with people and organizations that can help the district achieve its mission
- Operating Skills: Knowledge of what it takes to operate an enterprise with nonacademic services ranging from fleet management to real estate
- Political Savvy: The ability to assess who to cultivate in key positions of authority in local, state and federal government
- Navigating Complexity: Acknowledging and addressing civic, safety, health, welfare and logistical forces that can cause barriers to success in educating children
- Tenacity: The ability and willingness to soldier on despite setbacks and in the face of protests
Each leader succeeded to a certain degree based upon these strengths and their “fireinthebelly” for the cause of educating our children. Some, however, derailed their effectiveness because of a combination of the following weaknesses:
- Political Naiveté: The inability or unwillingness to get in harness with government officials whose influence is critical to success, and underestimating the need to discern, navigate and respect political realities
- Righteous Indignation: Taking the stand that others cannot understand the magnitude of the problems facing our schools, and so lashing out in a manner that alienates rather than engages or enlists help from the rest of the community; demonstrating bunker mentality implying that non-educators are the problem rather than part of the solution
- Focusing on the Negative: Sharing only the challenges and injustices involved in the work, unwittingly causing others to conclude that the problems are insurmountable
- Believing that everything that worked in another city will work here: Failing to take the time to get to know the local political and leadership culture that can support or sink new initiatives, and taking too long to publicize what works here versus what worked there
- Reinventing the Wheel: Abruptly tossing out the predecessor’s agenda instead of determining which aspects have traction and should endure in the children’s best interest
- Working in a Bubble: Failing to meet a range of local leaders quickly,thus denying themselves the benefit of varied opinions, local collective wisdom and access to a broad range of resources and support
- Short-timer Mentality: Acting as if they are just passing through, signaling that this assignment is temporary and that while they will do what it takes for now, they are not here for the long run
- Poor Messaging: Failure to understand the need for a strong communication strategyto help get the communities inside and outside of the district on board
Since Dr. William Hite became head of the district over a year ago, he has demonstrated all of the strengths above and none of the weaknesses. He has done an unusually good job of garnering the support and respect of other leaders, and he has been open to meeting people inside and outside of the district. He is a listener who knows that you learn more by gathering perspectives than by talking. His emotional intelligence and attunement have caused him to forge relationships effectively and navigate around the landmines that less-attentive predecessors stepped on.
Dr. Hite has been aggressive about holding public meetings to cultivate parents and other community members. His respectful, mannerly approach diffuses tension and opens dialogue. Difficult encounters are met as “teaching moments” when he acknowledges the opposing view and calms the waters by dignifying difference. His enthusiasm comes across like a coach encouraging his team. This combination of traits makes the rest of us feel as though we want to be on his team as well.
Time will tell what legacy Dr. Hite will create, but this district CEO is the leader that the city needs and the children deserve.