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Kaya Henderson: The new and improved Rhee?

"Leadership style," as a management topic, can have about as much intellectual heft in many boardrooms as the celebrity blog TMZ. Like corporate culture, the fuzzy term gets tossed around a lot as something that's important--but then tossed aside in favor of results, no matter how inelegantly they're achieved.

If ever there was an example that shows why management style should get more weight, it's Michelle Rhee. Consider the transfer of power from Rhee to Kaya Henderson, who will be interim schools chancellor but is also considered a potential permanent replacement. Not only did Henderson, like Rhee, get her start with Teach for America and work with Rhee for her New Teacher Project organization, she was an implementer of Rhee's strategies for reform in D.C. She calls Rhee her "friend, partner, mentor."

If that's so, why would presumptive mayor-elect Vincent Gray, given the debate over Rhee's reforms, choose someone who shared so much with the controversial Rhee?

Simple: They may share the same policies, but they don't share the same style. Rhee was brash-talking and blunt, a non-Washingtonian who brought marked improvements to D.C. schools but was not known for consensus-building. Henderson, meanwhile, has lived in Washington for nearly 17 years and was known to have a less alienating style than her former boss. The Post's Bill Turque calls Henderson a "gracious but resolute African American woman," or put simply, "Rhee without Rhee."

Which, despite all the complaints about her approach, seems to be what Washingtonians want. While many disagreed with how she got results, Rhee did improve test scores, and D.C. parents and teachers seem quite concerned that her reforms would end with her departure.

Typically in leadership transitions mired in as much controversy as the D.C. school reforms, there is bold talk of new strategies, of changing tactics, of cleaning house. Not here. D.C. residents still want change, but without the criticism; improvements, but without the insults.

Leaders who achieve quick and admirable outcomes are often cut a lot of slack for their shortcomings, whether they have lesser pedigrees than their peers or get tripped up by personal peccadilloes. But the fashion in which they achieve those results--everything from how they run meetings to how much time they take to listen to underlings--is not something that should be overlooked. While a leader's style may not be as black and white as profits and losses--or in this case, passing and failing grades--it is in these shades of gray that a leader's true colors are revealed.


Also by Jena McGregor:

Where Rhee went wrong

By Jena McGregor

 |  October 15, 2010; 9:47 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Leadership advice , Leadership skills , Public leadership , Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I personally think Chief Lanier is doing an "excellent" job and would love to see her stay ... you all sound like pure idiots.... every thing on this blog has been about race...then you are the first to scream racist.... of course race plays a part in things.... but get real..... this is not about that now... its about people exercising their rights period... Fenty and Rhee were not what was best and it was proven in the polls...so quit whining like little school children yourself and learn to embrace the change..whether its change for good or bad will not be determined right at this moment..... and are you saying @ medogsbstfrnd that black people are the "only" ones to make negative comments about Asians??? yeah right! and according to the racist whites on this poll how could we discuss anything at the water cooler...let you tell it... blacks don't work we're too busy getting food stamps and free government money ... we certainly can't read .... and any other negative stereotype you wish to spew... now its the "blacks" that have caused this.... hell most of the people who wanted Rhee to stay don't even have children in the DCPS system.... get off of your high horses please... believe it or not...this is not about you...its about the children and whats best for them.... I'm glad Rhee is gone.... I'm glad Fenty is gone...and anyone else who is not working on behalf of the "whole" ...they need to be gone as well..its evident that not everyone is going to be pleased regardless but we should agree that its a collective effort on "everyone's" part to ensure that our children's best interest is what comes first... at least it should be....

Posted by: ReflectionofLyfe | October 15, 2010 2:31 PM

Yeah, Henderson's leadership style is different and that's why DC will embrace her. Right, right. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the fact that Rhee is Asian and Henderson is Black is also why Henderson will be given the benefit of a doubt. Come now. We've all been around the water cooler and heard racist comments about Asians by Black constituents. To pretend this is not a dynamic is simply naive. Is it the only or most important dynamic? Maybe not. But to ignore it in the discussion only draws that much more attention to it.

Posted by: medogsbstfrnd | October 15, 2010 1:29 PM

The people of DC have spoken. They are angry that whites and others are moving in. That someone other than their own is in charge of the schools. Fenty losing and Rhee leaving is all about race. Next will be the police chief. Cannot have that darn white woman running the police force.

Posted by: Pilot1 | October 15, 2010 12:47 PM

all of the posters seem to assume that the issues the black community had with Michelle Rhee were all related to her race...what a crock!! (and typical of WAPO posters) She... just like Fenty had no accountability... yes there were genuine changes that were made...some actually for the good... and i for one as a parent of two girls currently in the DCPS system am pleased with "some" of those changes.... but please let's get real... Ms. Rhee had her own agenda going on....she never sought the publics opinion, because to her it didn't matter!! she gave lame excuses regarding the laying off or firing of all of those teachers and only after being questioned did she offer any semblance of a reason... her efforts would have been more appreciated and better received had she had an attitude of inclusiveness... quite frankly I look forward to seeing what new changes Ms. Henderson will bring with her and am looking for inclusiveness and accountability from her as well.....so i say... so long Michelle Rhee and good luck in your endeavors...and Welcome to Kaya Henderson...we(the parents) will be watching you as well....

Posted by: ReflectionofLyfe | October 15, 2010 12:09 PM

Sadly I fear that Henderson, as a black woman, will fare much better. The racism of the black community is the big elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. I've heard many black neighbors rant about Rhee as something like "that Chinese lady messing with our schools." Anti-Asian racism is a long established fact in the black community (remember the burning of Asian-owned business in the LA riots?). Until we deal with reality (and racism) as it now exists all our dancing around the issue will be useless.

Posted by: Drew95 | October 15, 2010 11:23 AM

ms. rhee will probably get offers to reform elsewhere. if she performs well at her next job, the implications will be problematic for the district. a few years ago if felt like this city was on the cusp of greatness, and now we seem mired in subserving past grievance.

Posted by: rzzzzz | October 15, 2010 10:48 AM

Whenever you have a failing institution, a hatchet man (or woman) is required. Once the chopping has been done, there is still pent up resentment so that the hatchet man is no longer welcome and a newer, gentler version must be brought on board to consolidate reforms. The DC schools follow this recipe. Nothing new.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 15, 2010 10:46 AM

Really? Come on. Let's pretend race has nothing to do with resistance to Michele Rhee. It was all about her leadership style, right?

Posted by: Daedulus | October 15, 2010 10:29 AM

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