On July 1, 2002, Gary J. Niels began his tenure as WT’s 18th Head of School, Maura Farrell walked through the pillared portals as the school’s first Director of Communications, beginning her own journey through a series of roles, culminating as Associate Head for Strategic & External Affairs. Now, as Niels departs, Farrell reflects on his leadership from the vantage point of having worked alongside him during a remarkable time of growth.
It was October 4, 2002. Just three months into the job, by his own account Gary had already grown to love the “palpable positive Winchester Thurston culture you feel when you walk through our doors.” He had read and embraced the school’s history—its evolution from a fine school for girls with world class standards ahead of its time, into a multiple-campus, co-ed school with both urban and rural settings. He had studied WT’s unique approach to teaching and learning. He had assembled his Cabinet and we had begun to bond as a leadership team. He had published his first op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He had begun to work closely with the Board on the school’s first capital campaign in 20 years.
Installation Day wove together ideas of community and pride, providing us with a moment to imagine what future this new leader might guide us toward.
Henry ‘Skip’ Flanagan, long tenured Head of Western Reserve Academy and self-described “friend, mentor, and fan of Gary Niels,” introduced my new boss, assuring us that WT had found a person who embodied the motto, “Gentle in Manner, Strong in Deed,” and whose greatest ally was stamina.
As a visionary, educator, leader, manager, and listener, Flanagan continued, Gary “lends passion to all that he and you will undertake … He will take up the charge as few have done … Great energy will be found in this place. Good things will happen in this place!”
Board President Marty Powell rounded out the introduction, describing Gary as “a coach—the kind you feel you don’t want to disappoint because he believes in you.”
Aspiration for WT Greatness
In his own address, Gary asked us the essential question, “What matters most?” He centered his talk on the many possible defining elements of a WT education, concluding with an answer that touched on various definitions of wisdom grounded in ancient Hebrew and Greek cultures. He gave a nod to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, and resoundingly endorsed Miss Mitchell’s timeless mandate, “Think also of the comfort and the rights of others.” He closed with the first of what would be countless rousing “Go Bears” cheers, instigating the Lower Schoolers in the audience to join him.
Soon afterward, Gary wrote in a letter to the WT community that in the children’s shouts he had “heard…enthusiasm and unbridled aspiration for WT greatness.” After recounting a series of things about WT that could already be considered great, particularly our students, faculty, and alumnae/i, he made his case for why and how WT ought to aim higher:
As to why: WT can’t stand still! WT has unrealized potential! WT has a long heritage of academic innovation built on the foundation of college preparation! Finally, WT must model a desire to excel!
As to what: WT aspires to offer a program which is creative and dynamic in its use of the unique resources in our vicinity and to further develop programs enabling students to explore interests and passions beyond their academic courses. WT aspires to further challenge its students to make a difference in their world. WT aspires to employ inspirational teachers and to offer them opportunities to continue their development. And WT aspires to deliver its program in a facility that reflects the excellence of its program.
Skip Flanagan’s predictions, Marty Powell’s reflections, and Gary’s own expressed aspirations proved to be a sort of blueprint for how the next decade and a half would unfold. Not only would WT realize greatness in a number of forms, but, as Powell had described he would, Gary would coach, develop, and challenge this school that he so believed in, and leave a lasting impact on many of us as professionals and human beings.
Gary indeed “took up the charge” with passion and energy. Over the years, he would hold fast to a vision that was already taking shape in his 2002 installation address and follow-up letter. One can see in those writings glimmers of many “good things” that were to come: a new Mission statement and Core Values. A commitment to transforming City as Our Campussm from an idea to a robust model for community-based learning. An unswerving belief in faculty and an early nod to what would become the Talent Initiative in 2011. A relentless pursuit of high quality facilities—from a gleaming new Upper School and Campus Center at the North Hills Campus, to revitalized spaces in Molloy Posner Hall. A hint of the significant advances we would make in reputation and resources as a result of these accomplishments. And, finally, a knitting together of his own ideals and convictions about character with the school’s enduring credo.
The Gift of Challenge
From the very beginning of his headship, Gary took the “chief cheerleader” role to heart. Nonetheless, there were daunting challenges facing WT when Gary arrived. (This is where the stamina would come in!) They included double-digit attrition, an anemic endowment, overcrowded and inadequate facilities, an alumnae/i community that needed reconnection, and a Pittsburgh economy that was still recovering from its 1980s implosion. There was a professed commitment to diversity embedded in our ethos and our history, but the principles and structures to support it needed to be strengthened. While there was a strong sense of mission internally, our external image was murky.
Transitions, of course, are natural times for wariness—we fear what we might lose or what we might be challenged to confront. There were skeptics, there was zero-sum thinking, and there were scarcity mindsets: The school ought to play to its strengths and become a K-8. Why try to build a strong sports program when it’s obvious that our claim to fame is the arts? WT will never compete with the great facilities at our competitor schools. WT is nurturing, not challenging. What is wrong with just being a really strong, good college preparatory, academic school?
Gary’s approach to WT’s challenges and potential was in all likelihood shaped by his experience as the “unsung hero” of the 1975 NCAA men’s lacrosse championship team, which won the tournament in an upset. In the early years of his headship, I was learning that he thrived on the challenge of being an underdog—or, more accurately, an underdog with a clear vision, a strategy, and a good chance of prevailing!
Gary understood that we were on a long journey and he recognized the importance of early and meaningful action. He understood that we had an uphill climb and he knew he had to galvanize us all to ascend in the same direction. He understood that being an underdog meant sometimes having to make pragmatic compromises in order to stay the course for the long haul and that even as we made these compromises, we could not give up on the overarching goal. He welcomed others to the table and he knew that if we didn’t have the expertise or resources we needed, it was up to him to go out and find them. And (especially six years into his tenure, when we experienced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression), even though our friend Elliott Oshry frequently reminded us that “hope is not a strategy,” Gary sometimes led us from a place of raw hope, from the sheer desire to prevail which was so necessary to scaling the next hill.
Timeless Leadership Qualities
The world looks nothing like it did on October 4, 2002. Surrounded by what has become the cliché of relentless change, we imagine that effective leadership today requires new skills and dispositions.
Certainly this is true. But there are timeless qualities to strong leadership, too. Gary has led us through 16 years of radical change, in times of near-peril, times of relative stability, and in times of victory, in part by drawing on two of these qualities: Team Building and Purpose Building.
Purpose Building: On that bright October day in 2002, I began to see that my new job was not going to be just a job at all, but a calling, fueled by a leader with whom we would all join to breathe life into WT’s potential for greatness. Reflecting on the Flanagan, Powell, and Niels predictions of October 2002, I add this sense of calling to the list. For if there is anything I have taken to heart in my time working for and with Gary and at WT, it is this passage from his October 2002 letter to the community: “There are few things in life more delightful than an awareness of growing, improving, and expanding. We have this yearning within us …”
Books We Read with Gary
Faculty, staff, and administrators read and discuss books on a regular basis for professional development, team building, and inspiration. Here is a selection of books and articles discussed with Gary:
Active Literacy Across the Curriculum, Heidi Hayes Jacobs
Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni
Colleges that Change Lives, Loren Pope
Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, Heidi Hayes Jacobs
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, Jim Collins
Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, Jim Collins
Harvard Business Review, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” John P. Kotter
Harvard Business Review, “How Managers Become Leaders,” Michael D. Watkins
Harvard Business Review, “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin E.P. Seligman
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck
Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, Doug Lemov
The Colors of Excellence: Hiring and Keeping Teachers of Color in Independent Schools, Pearl Rock Kane and Alfonso J. Orsini
The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble
The Road to Character, David Brooks
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum