Andres Alonso
CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools

What Spells Great Educational Leadership?

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“A funny combination of confidence and humility” makes a great leader in the school system, as Andres Alonso explains.

Andres Alonso

Dr. Andres Alonso was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 12. Originally speaking no English, he attended public schools in Union City, New Jersey, and ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University. Dr. Alonso went on to earn a J.D. from Harvard Law School and practiced law in New York City before changing course to become an educator. In 2006 he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University. 

From 1987 to 1998, Dr. Alonso taught emotionally disturbed special education adolescents and English language learners in Newark, New Jersey. He worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2003 to 2007, first as Chief of Staff and then as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, working closely with the Chancellor in planning and implementing the reform of the largest educational system in the nation. On July 1, 2007, Dr. Alonso was named CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools).

Among many other awards, in 2008 he was granted the “Audacious Individual Award” by the Open Society Institute Baltimore, and named “Innovator of the Year” by The Daily Record. In 2009 he was named “School Superintendent of the Year” by the Fullwood Foundation, and recognized as a “Hispanic Hero Award” winner by U.S. Hispanic Youth Entrepreneur Education. In August 2009 Dr. Alonso was appointed to the prestigious No Child Left Behind Committee for the Aspen Institute, a bipartisan effort to improve federal education policy to spur academic progress and close the achievement gap.


Question: What’s a leadership quality that you’ve found to be important in your own work or that you admire in someone else?

Andres Alonso: You know, I’m always a little bit embarrassed about this leadership question because somebody’s great leadership asset is somebody’s recipe for destruction. Again, because so much is about context and because so much is almost a kind of alchemy between person, place, time. I think a leader has to listen, but at the same time be very certain about certain things. And I struggle with communicating that because I communicate a sense of confidence and often it is misunderstood as just doing it my way when the confidence is about authority and about pushing for the right things, but always within a frame where there's a possibility for change and for learning about what I might be missing.

So, this is I think a funny combination of confidence and humility. It’s very much essential to leadership. I think that the good leaders have to know what their essentials are and they also have to leave margin for compromise. I think that there had to be a clear marker that is established very early on so that a community learns who the leader is. And finally, there has to be a huge element of luck in terms of what happens so that the followers who need to become leaders get a sense of the possibility of something happening that might not have been possible if that person were not at the wheel.

If those things come together, good things happen. The leader also, I think, has to be often still. When everything else is sort of spinning, somebody has to be still. Other times the leader has to be the storm because then everyone else will be still when there's a need for great motion.

So, I mean, those are the things, you know, it’s - I think I work in a very intuitive way within those frames. I work unbelievably hard, so when people - I never want to be in a room and not be the most prepared person in the room. By now because I’ve been doing this for such a long time, I don’t need to prepare in the same way. I’ve seen many things, but it really bothers me if something emerges in the conversation and at some level I feel that I haven’t prepared for it.

So, all those things matter. By far, however, and I’m not sure why I didn’t say this, the most important thing is having good people around you. So, there's an essential quality that is about being able to spot, attract, make very talented, dedicated people want to buy into a vision that they share. Not your vision, a vision that is shared. And I think that’s, by far, the most important quality of all because it can never be about one person and once you leave the room, it’s somebody else who has to do the work.

So, it’s a combination of those things, and I’ve been lucky, by the way, because I have worked with - I've learned from some pretty extraordinary people in my time.