Leadership Lessons from Adrian Fenty and Michele Rhee

There is a line from an old James Taylor song that says “you can’t treat people like meat without getting brought down to your knees, now and then.”  Although it doesn’t always work out this way in our lifetime, this seems to be exactly what happened to Washington DC’s Mayor Adrian Fenty and perhaps by association, his Chancellor of Public Schools, Michele Rhee.

But what about the school test scores that are reportedly climbing because of the changes Rhee has implemented?  Doesn’t matter.  What about the 25% drop in the DC homicide rate to the lowest number in 45 years.  Doesn’t count.   What about the fact that Mayor Fenty garnered 89% of the vote only four years ago?  Ancient history.

Let me be clear.  I’m writing this from an outsiders point of view, thirty five miles east of the District, but the lessons of leadership screaming across the beltway are deafening.  Perhaps some of you have lived through these same lessons.  I know I have.  So what did Fenty do so wrong that got him tossed out of office?  What was Rhee’s mistake that has her clinging to her role as DC top educator?

Their problem is the same the whole world over and it is at epidemic proportions at many of our institutions.   Call it hubris, an extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often means being out of touch with your stakeholders and overestimating your abilities.   Confidence is a natural attribute of leaders but hubris means you feel your accomplishments were solely because of your unique abilities … and they never are.

Many of us can easily fall prey to a self centered view of our business success.  Our culture is full of terms to support this.  “He’s a self made millionaire” or “she lifted herself up by her bootstraps”.  But the best leaders, the ones we want to work for and will follow anywhere deflect the praise and heap the rewards on others.  They listen to their stakeholders and create in their followers a genuine desire to support their initiatives.

Results are critical, but they are not sufficient.  Perhaps Fenty’s choice of Michelle Rhee was just what the DC school systems needed.  Perhaps your choice of Director of HR or Division Manager will provide quick results.  But if leaders in these positions feel like they should be served rather than serve their constituents, they won’t bring about lasting change because they won’t be around long.

Just ask Adrian Fenty.

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