Of Mentors and Leadership

With the first wave of students (all the seniors) returning for the new school year, I entered my office following the Labor Day weekend. The first thing I did — Well, that is, after cursing the end of summer — was pull the August page off my desk calendar. After X-ing off September days 1, 2, and 3, I enacted my monthly ritual of writing two quotes at the top of the page.  The first is by Warren Bennis (1925-2014):

“Leadership is the ability to transform vision into reality.”

If you do not know of Warren’s work on leadership at USC and across the world, here’s a quick take from Wikipedia:

Warren Gamaliel Bennis was an American scholar, organizational consultant and author, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies. Bennis was University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California.   

His 1989 book On Becoming a Leader is standard reading in MBA programs across the U.S. Anyone challenged to lead in any setting would do well to check him out.  His quotes alone are priceless.  Another favorite: “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.”

Yet another: “Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led.”

I was blessed to have a more personal relationship with Warren that began over 30 years ago when his son Will ’87 was enrolled at Hyde. When I wrote my book College Success Guaranteed – 5 Rules to Make it Happen  (2011), I took what I assumed was a long shot and asked Warren to read and offer commentary on the final draft. Much to my surprise and delight (!), he said he would be glad to take a look. The follow-up meeting we had at his home in Santa Monica was a personal leadership development day, the likes of which I will never forget. Perhaps my greatest takeaway was his comment about Rule #4: “Get a Mentor.”

He said, “Malcolm, I agree with all 5 of your rules, but there is one I would tweak. You don’t merely ‘get’ a mentor. You stalk mentors, and you stalk them your whole life.” Yup.

Prior to my day with Warren, the mentor thing was a nice way to round out the 5 Rules. Since then, I have been all over kids about its importance as a lifelong key to success and fulfillment.

The second quote is by Pearl Kane (1940-2019):

“Leadership is a behavior, not a position.”

Simply put, no one did more to advance the cause of exemplary leadership in independent schools than Pearl Kane. When she passed away last February, the following remembrance appeared on the Columbia University website:

Pearl Rock Kane, former director of Teachers College’s Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership, died in late February… She led the Klingenstein Center for 37 years, was named TC’s Klingenstein Family Professor and built the Center into the preeminent organization of its kind.

Kane’s famous dictum was that leadership is a behavior, not a position or a title. She immersed her students in the study of moral leadership, teamwork and diversity, while striving to attract more women and people of color. She infused the preparation of independent school leaders with new intellectual richness, applying theories of change and organizational behavior, tackling issues such as teacher attrition and presenting new information on brain research, child and adolescent development, and curriculum design. And at a time when most administrators were former teachers who had learned on the job, Kane introduced courses on ethics, law, marketing, finance, cognitive development and negotiation.

I was honored to be a Klingenstein Fellow in 1995. Joining a dozen other school heads, I spent a month in residence at Teachers College, Columbia studying, discussing (with no small amount of arguing!), and addressing issues facing independent schools.  It was the greatest professional development experience I have had as an educator and Pearl was the glue. She was our leader.

She and I mixed it up fairly often. Although I’m guessing that she saw me as a handful, I know I was a fortunate beneficiary. If asked to pinpoint her contributions to my own educational leadership — the purpose of the fellowship — she helped me transition to a more balanced view of the art and science of education. (Up until then I had pretty much been an art guy.) We stayed in touch over the years.  In fact, we recently went for a walk on the Columbia campus, comparing notes and viewpoints. Although I’m way too young to know whether President James Garfield was right when he defined the ideal college as “Mark Hopkins (late 19th century Williams College president) on one end of a log and a student on the other,” I gotta believe that a campus stroll with Pearl Kane is right up there.  Thinking back, it occurs to me that what Warren said was true about mentors played itself out in my relationship with Pearl.

As another year begins, I offer profound thanks to Pearl and Warren.  Here’s to vision, behavior, and reality. Here’s to paying it forward.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld