Sticking to the Basics

Could you do the same job for 48 years?

If you started your job 48 years ago, John Kennedy would have been president.  Zip codes were not yet introduced. Dr. No (the first James Bond film) had just been introduced.  Gas cost 29 cents per gallon, and the average new house cost only $12,650.

Every once in a while comes a story about a unique person who makes us think about our own lives.   Madeleine P Brennan is one of them (as you can see from the linked NY Times article by Sharon Otterman.)

Mrs. Brennan, as it turns out, is a sort of living time capsule.  She is now getting ready to retire (in 2013) from her position as Principal of the Dyker Heights Intermediate School (PS 201) in Brooklyn, New York.  It is a position she first took in 1963.

Imagine that.  Forty-eight years in the same job . . . one incidentally that she seems to have gotten pretty good at over those years.

We write a lot about managing change – and she has certainly has seen her share.  When she began at PS 201, her students were the children mainly of Italian immigrants.  When she arrived it was in chaos – graffiti on the walls, and unruly gangs roaming the halls.    She turned that all around. Today her student population is 45% Asian and 18% Hispanic (68% of her 1,500 students qualify for Federal lunch subsidies).   Her school performs in the top-tier within the NYPS system.

What can we take away from her story?  Here are at least a couple of items:

Find something you LOVE, and then it doesn’t seem like work.   Most see Madeleine as an energetic person with as much passion as anyone else they can think of.   It’s hard, of course, to compare her with how she was 30 or even 40 years ago (since most of her former employees have long since retired themselves.)  I imagine that a good case can be made that staying active with things that provide joy can keep you young.

Find what works for you, and stay with the basic concepts.   You would imagine that Madeleine’s school management concepts have changed dramatically over the years in response to our changing environment and her student body.   Sometimes we all tend to jump from one leadership book to the next, adopting the newest concept.   But this doesn’t seem to have been Brennan’s approach.  From her perspective, the core principles she lives by are the same as always.  Be strict (no talking in the halls); hold people (students) to high standards of performance; expect a lot of people, and believe in them; and provide many new ways to inspire and challenge them.  These overall principles are proven to work… the little things do change, but not these basic concepts grounded in a practical understanding of human beings.

It seems to me, that these ideas make sense in any industry or organization. I hope you find her story as intriguing as I did.  How about you?  Could you see yourself in the same job after 48 years?  How about 25?



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Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

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