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Monday, October 18, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Front Porch Forum

The Consumate Leader: John Stanford

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When the Front Porch Forum asked focus groups earlier this year to name some memorable leaders, they came up with a lot of answers, from Napoleon to Winston Churchill. Contemporary leaders were nearly missing from the list, especially local ones, with one striking exception: John Stanford. The late superintendent of Seattle's schools came up again and again as an example of effective leadership. So what was it about this retired Army general - and what can it tell us about what makes a leader? -------------------------------

John Stanford's tenure in Seattle might well have been forgettable, even disastrous:

A military man with no experience in education, a virtual unknown whose self-confidence appeared to border on arrogance, lands in liberal, consensus-loving Seattle to be the new schools superintendent.

Many good leaders have been paralyzed by less.

Yet when Stanford died last year just three years and three months after he arrived in the city, he was regarded not only as one of public education's great hopes but as one of this state's top leaders in any field and an emerging presence on the national political scene.

A remarkable, symbiotic relationship was forged between Stanford and Seattle in that short time that defies easy explanation, a relationship that continues to resonate today and to color the way many people here think about what comprises effective leadership.

The rocket fuel behind Stanford's extraordinary ascent was part good fortune, part chemical reaction between a man who seemed born to lead and a city hungry for a hero.

He was the right man at the right time with the right stuff honed by years of military-leadership training, whose death only enhanced his stature.

"The pieces came together - whether it's luck, fate, serendipity, take your pick of words," said retired Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was Stanford's mentor, friend and fellow officer for the past two decades.

"Seattle took a chance on him . . . and he had this love affair with the city that lasted clear through to the end."

The right man

Bravado, chutzpah, diligence, delivery, self-confidence, sincerity - Stanford's mixture of charisma and vision was the stuff other leaders would buy by the ounce if they could.

Gov. Gary Locke, for one, has called Stanford the leader he admires most.

Stanford was impatient when it counted, masterful in his speaking, shrewd in honing his public image, at once realistic and naive, brash and thoughtful.

He knew what he was good at, and just as importantly, he knew what he didn't know and had the confidence to surround himself with people he believed possessed the expertise he lacked.

Stanford was regarded as a successful leader before he ever landed in Seattle. In fact, at the time he was considering the Seattle job, several other job offers were on his desk, including a high-level position in the Clinton White House.

Friends and colleagues who knew him best say people responded so strongly because they sensed an earnest love and passion that drove him.

"This love of people and this trust that the right thing would happen - it was absolutely his core," said Linda Harris, former School Board president who helped recruit Stanford to Seattle.

"You knew he cared about you and about the things you cared about, and so you were willing to follow him."

Perhaps that's why, even 10 months after Stanford's death, some staffers in the district's central office have saved voice-mail messages Stanford left for them, a way to hang on to a piece of his energy and vision.

"He was brilliantly eloquent at expressing big goals for our schools," said University of Washington President Richard McCormick, who started his job the same day Stanford began his on Sept. 1, 1995.

" `Victory begins in the classroom,' `All children will learn.' . . . These were simple statements, but they resonate with people," McCormick said. "They go right to the heart of what people want from public education."

Terence Mitchell, a UW professor of business administration and psychology, said that a theory known as "transformational leadership" has gained favor among researchers studying the character traits of effective leaders.

A transformational leader articulates a vision based on values, leads by example and uses interpersonal skills to support and collaborate with others.

"It's having the right kind of attributes in the right place at the right time," Mitchell said. Having all those pieces come together in one person "is not particularly common."

Stanford's unusual leadership style is the subject of a 362-page doctoral dissertation by Ruth Walsh McIntyre, a former KOMO-TV news anchor and reporter who spent three years shadowing and interviewing Stanford for her research. She received her doctorate in education from Seattle University in June.

McIntyre concluded Stanford is a template for a new kind of "millennial leader," exhibiting the qualities that will be demanded of leaders in the 21st century - self-confidence, integrity, courage, smarts, passion, vision and flexibility to succeed in a world undergoing dramatic and rapid changes.

She spent two or three days a week observing or interviewing Stanford and interviewed 76 of his friends, family, colleagues and employees, examining his leadership style from college through the end of his life.

McIntyre found Stanford left an enormous imprint wherever he went.

"That started early, and it just got more powerful," she said.

On his military evaluations, people said again and again, "He made us better than we thought we could be," she said.

"His greatest strength is to think like a leader," a subordinate who worked with Stanford at the Pentagon told McIntyre. "It motivates and underlies all of his actions. You could give John a ragtag bunch of misfits, and he could overrun France."

"I used to say I'd follow John into hell with a bucket of gasoline in each hand," another told McIntyre. "He has such confidence in himself that it rubs off on you."

McIntyre believes 90 percent of what she calls the "Stanford Leadership Model" is replicable. The model, she wrote, has as its foundation "relationships, interconnectedness, global vision, love of followers and a passion for seeking and fixing problems."

The other 10 percent? "He was born with something," McIntyre said. "He was just destined to be a leader."

At the right time

At least some of Stanford's success here was a simple fluke of timing.

"I think Seattle was hungry for John," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, representing school superintendents nationwide. "They were looking for the guy on a white horse to ride in."

Seattle schools, while suffering from neglect and a lack of direction, were basically in decent shape, especially when compared with other urban school systems riven by politics, scandal and tepid community support.

The foundation for Stanford's plan had been laid before he even arrived. The fundamental commitment to children and public schools lay dormant, waiting for a leader to shake it awake.

Matching a leader's style to a community's needs is tricky. Stanford himself said his brand of leadership was not meant for the long term.

"I go someplace, I hit hard and fast, make the changes, get it going and then I move on," he said once.

Cities can "short out" on charismatic leaders after a time, Houston agreed. A leadership approach that works at one point may be disastrous at another.

But in this case, Stanford's vision and charisma were just the galvanizing force the city needed, many believe.

"There was a coming together around this vision," said Harris, the former School Board president. "We were ready."

With the right stuff

Stanford's confident leadership style, his ability to articulate a vision and rally the troops to carry it out were all elements honed during his 30-year military career.

Powell also attributes much of his friend's success in Seattle to the rigors of military preparation.

Stanford's work in Seattle was driven by a "mission analysis," using a classic military technique to discover what the issues are and how best to complete a mission. "It was all very military," Powell said.

"What he saw is we're not running the school system for the kids. We're running the school system for everyone but the kids," Powell said. "Everybody found that to be remarkably brilliant. I'd have flunked him if he came up with anything different."

Military leaders study management, develop leadership skills, learn to cut through obstacles "and try not to let bureaucratic impediments stand in the way, and that's exactly what John did in Seattle," Powell said.

Those are skills learned early and sharpened by experience in the military. "First and foremost, we are trainers," Powell said. In a matter of months, officers have to take young recruits and infuse them with a variety of life and professional skills - the ability to face death; to care about others; to work as a team.

"The military purpose is moving men and women in unison in a difficult mission that may cost their lives," Powell said. "You're dealing with people's sons and daughters."

While great leaders grow and learn from such training, "there are also certain things you bring to the equation," Powell said. "People, I think, are born with some qualities that suggest they could be good leaders or made into good leaders," including a willingness to take risks, to listen to others and to be decisive.

Stanford "brought all that to Seattle with a double-barreled dose of concern for young people," Powell said.

People across the nation watched Stanford's rise with interest, and it wasn't long before other cities sought to duplicate Seattle's experience.

Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Boulder, Colo., are just a few of the cities that have tried similar experiments by hiring former military leaders as superintendents.

But in some cases, it hasn't worked out well. Houston said he used to joke with Stanford that his success ruined it for all the other generals.

"It's hard to generalize from (Stanford). He was an unusual person, not just an unusual superintendent," Houston said. "He was a very unusual general, too - I mean, `Love 'em and lead 'em'? That's not exactly military issue."

Lionized in death

Stanford's death last November made him loom even larger as a heroic figure. If he had not become ill, it's likely some of the mythic qualities his leadership has assumed would be tempered by a sense of unfulfilled promise and the reality of his short tenure.

Some who weren't won over by his work in the schools found themselves converted after Stanford announced he had leukemia and fought a very public eight-month battle to beat it.

But if he hadn't fallen ill, Houston predicts the glow around Stanford would have dimmed with time.

"He didn't get bloodied because he wasn't there long enough," Houston said.

Leaders often look better in retrospect than in the present, said Hubert Locke, dean emeritus of the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington.

John F. Kennedy, for example, enjoyed "some great moments in (his) presidency to be sure, but there were also some lesser moments that we don't hear much about," Locke said. "Certainly John Kennedy in death has grown much larger than he was in his presidency."

While Locke stressed he has the highest regard for Stanford, he believes the way Stanford courageously handled his illness contributes to the way people remember him now.

"If John had been around another five years and reading scores had slipped, for example, or the city lost a school-bond issue or some such, whether he would have been able to maintain that luster is not known."

A symbiotic relationship

Stanford often said he never really understood Seattle's intense reaction to him - a combination of curiosity and adulation that caused people to cluster around him after his public appearances or even while dining out at a restaurant.

"I asked him a hundred times, and he said a hundred times, `I don't get it,' " recalled McIntyre, who plans to write a book about "millennial leadership" as well as a biography of Stanford.

Yet Stanford also recognized that the symbiotic relationship between him and the city gave him permission to push change as hard and as fast as he did.

"Leaders get their power and authority from the led," he would say. Friends said he was "blown away" by the public acclaim, but he also knew it was a critical component in putting public schools back on the public agenda.

Stanford's detractors said he was all public-relations wizardry and no substance, that the media deified him and never subjected him to the tough scrutiny most leaders face.

It's true Stanford shrewdly cultivated relationships with people, including reporters, and used the press to further his agenda. He loved the stage he found here, and if Seattle was a bit star-struck with him, he knew how to turn that to his advantage.

But it's also true that many of the changes Stanford brought to the schools are real and quantifiable: more money and volunteers from the community; systemic changes that have streamlined and enhanced the district's operations; a renewed emphasis on academic performance and accountability.

While the results can be measured, the incandescent relationship between Stanford and Seattle that seemed to draw out the best in both is harder to quantify, and, some say, would be difficult to duplicate.

"John Stanfords are rare. There's not many of them lying around," McCormick said.

"I've thought about that a lot," said Harris, the former School Board president. "Why can't we replicate this? I can't really come up with an answer.

"We check off boxes to make leaders - do they have the right credentials from the right schools? - and John was not someone you could just box. We forget about the passion and the bravery leadership requires," she said.

"He was just the right person at the right time. And we were very lucky."

Jolayne Houtz's phone message number is 206-464-3122. Her e-mail address is jhoutz@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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