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Empathy…AKA, Remember, It’s Not About You: A Conversation with Ann Clark

June 14, 2019 by William McKenzie
Ann Clark led the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district as superintendent after having served the respected district as a teacher, principal, and administrator for more than 30 years. Now a district advisor for the George W. Bush Institute’s School Leadership Initiative, Clark notes in her Listening to Leaders interview that simply being available to colleagues is how leaders start to develop trusting relationships. She also believes leaders must build up the capacity of others to do their work.

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This article is an excerpt from the Bush Center's latest book. Read the full interview with Ann Clark in Listening to Leaders.

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How do you define great leadership?

I define leadership as the ability to collaboratively develop a vision that inspires people to set high goals for their team.

You have said that corporate leaders can motivate staff with bonuses and big salaries, but educational leaders have to offer their time. What did you mean by that?

To me, time is what I could control. I could spend it affirming their choices of being teachers or administrators or whatever their role was.

For me, it wasn’t just about walking around, it was about establishing relationships, being intentional when I was talking to someone, and not being distracted by technology, the phone, or the bell. Intentional chatter with people makes a big difference.

Is that ability to relate mostly innate, or can it be learned and coached? And if it can be learned and coached, how do you do that in a school setting?

I am an incredible introvert, but few people who know me would be convinced of that. Absolutely you can learn to build relationships. The way I saw the role of a principal and a district-level leader in a large district was that you had to build relationships, you had to have executive presence, and you had to have a leadership voice.

If a person realizes it’s important, you can be coached on it. I’m far from a natural cheerleader personality, but I know what inspired me to follow a leader was that relationship piece. I knew if I was going to be a successful leader, I would have to develop relationship skills. 

You have likened the principal to being the linchpin in the air traffic control tower. Why is the principal so key? A lot of people perhaps think the teacher is the most critical person in the school. 

The principal is the key lever for transformational change at a school. Everything they do supports the magic that happens in the classroom between a teacher and a student. 

Great teachers might be hired by a mediocre principal, but they won’t stay at a school with a mediocre principal. To create great learning experiences with amazing teachers, you need a leader that will motivate teachers to continue to do their hard work. 

What worked well in reaching so many different constituencies you have to reach as a superintendent? 

I very much had a communication strategy. For example, I communicated with 18,000 employees every Friday in a message called A Note from Ann. And I was highly visible in the community just as I was as a school principal. I wanted people to know me and have a relationship with me so they better understood my “why.” That helped them better understand my decisions. They knew me as a person and a leader.;

How much time could you focus two-to-three years ahead vs. having to manage daily challenges? And what advice would you give to leaders about creating time to think ahead? 

The leader needs to hire someone underneath them to run the day-to-day while they keep themselves at the strategic level. That's where they can inspire, build relationships, and connect the strategy to the vision. 

Read more from Ann Clark on developing leaders in a major school district in Listening to Leaders


William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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