Johnson's Leadership Style: The Sac High Case Study

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 15, 2008

With this story, KXJZ News starts a two-part series examining the leadership styles of the top two candidates for mayor of Sacramento.  And we begin with Kevin Johnson.  Almost everyone who’s worked with him has a strong opinion.  They either love him …
Maya:Kevin has the vision, the leadership.  He is able to bring other great leaders together.”
… or they don’t.
Alair:He’s a bully.  He pushes people around and gets what he wants and he’s never told no.”
Johnson is running for mayor in large part based on his record at Sacramento High School.  So his leadership style there is the focus of our profile.


"Students Will Rise to the Level that You Set for Them"

This is a story about a school and one of its students: Sacramento High and Kevin Johnson, class of 1983.  Today, it’s a charter school, run by Johnson’s non-profit, St. HOPE. 
Teacher: “All right, for 50, ‘The word distracted is derived from the Latin root meaning…’  So when you hear that word distracted, what does that make you think of?” 
A 9th grade English class is just under way, and students are working on a couple of practice questions on the projector.  Co-principal P.K. Diffenbaugh huddles at the side of the room.  He says every class starts with an exercise like this. 
Diffenbaugh:We’re trying to maximize learning time, so … the moment they enter, they have an activity up; and they’re working on it.”
That’s one of many “best practices” Diffenbaugh says Sac High has put in place.  And look at the results, he says.  Inner-city students – many of whom never for a moment thought they’d go to college – are getting into places like Stanford and MIT. 
Diffenbaugh:Students will rise to the level that you set for them.  Again and again we see that.  That’s why our graduation rates are higher, that’s why our test scores are higher, that’s why our college acceptances are off the roof.  It’s because before, no one ever told students that they could do it and no one ever showed them the way.  Now, we’re able to do that.” 


"So Impressive to Me"

Maya: “That all comes from the leadership within St. HOPE, starting with Kevin Johnson.” 
Rick Maya has been St. HOPE’s executive director for the last several months; Johnson personally brought him aboard.  Maya comes from the corporate world, and he’s worked with a lot of leaders.  But to him, Kevin Johnson stands out. 
Maya: “Kevin’s one who clearly leads from the front.  He looks at opposition and finds a way to work through that through good communication, but at the end of the day, he’s courageous.” 
He’s also organized and disciplined, says Natalie Johnston.  She spent a year working at St. HOPE, and says she learned her own leadership skills from Johnson. 
Johnston: “The bottom line for him is improving the lives of others, giving back to the community that he was born and went to school in, and that’s just so impressive to me.” 


"Shut Up, Keep Working and Watch Out"

Yet controversy has followed Johnson since the school district granted St. HOPE a charter to run Sac High five years ago.  And some of his strongest critics are teachers and administrators he hired to turn the school around. 
Alair:You have to do exactly what is asked of you or you’ll get in trouble.” 
Allison Alair went to school with Johnson, and when he asked her to come back and teach the first year under St. HOPE, she was excited to help “re-invent Sac High.”  And at first, Alair says, she thought Johnson’s management style was absolutely necessary.  But as her time at Sac High progressed, she didn’t like what she saw. 
Alair:He would fire people or push people out and humiliate them, make it very personal, very unprofessional also.” 
She says Johnson yelled at people, and made her cry twice.  She calls him a bully. 
Alair:It completely permeates the entire organization – this fear of, if you speak up or you speak out, you will be fired.  There is no union, there is no recourse, there is nothing you can do.  Shut up, keep working and watch out.” 
After three years, Alair left.  And she wasn’t the only one.


"He is Very Involved.  Perhaps ... Too Involved"

Young: The turnover rate’s in the 80-90%.  It’s sickening.” 
Allen Young was one of the original six principals Johnson recruited in 2003, and he says almost everyone he worked with back then is gone.  He and other former staffers say the turnover is largely because of Johnson. 
Young:He is very involved.  Perhaps, in my opinion, too involved in certain avenues.  The idea was that he was gonna be the lightning rod to this education movement and then he was gonna get the heck out of the way and allow the folks that he hired to do their job.” 
Instead, Young says, Johnson did the opposite.  Several former teachers and administrators say he changed his mind a lot, sometimes at the last minute.  They say he didn’t listen or communicate well.  Johnson’s intentions were good, Young says, but he didn’t agree with how Johnson tried to achieve his goals.  Young left at the start of his third year. 
Young:I still look out and see a kid with a purple S on his or her shirt, and I do – I stop a second and reflect on what could have been.  It could’ve been something very, very, very special. And I think all that effort was not necessarily wasted, but it was squandered.”


"Whatever it Takes"

Back at Sac High, students are hustling to class as the bell rings.  All around the school, they see signs on the walls with the phrase “Whatever it takes.”  It’s a mantra based on Kevin Johnson’s approach to life – an approach that’s earned him undying loyalty and admiration … and also, plenty of detractors.