Lasallians Unfiltered – Mr. Matthew Keough will be starting his fourth year as principal at Christian Brothers Academy in DeWitt, NY. Keough studies and writes about leadership, emphasizing that it’s the verb, the action, that’s important.
“When we focus on leadership as a verb and not a title or noun, we realize that leadership takes place each day at all levels of an organization…”
School resumes after Labor Day for tens of thousands of Central New York students. Matt Keough will be starting his fourth year as principal for about 785 students in grades 7 through 12 at Christian Brothers Academy in DeWitt, where he was previously chair of the math department.
Keough studies and writes about leadership, emphasizing that it’s the verb, the action, that’s important. The noun, the title, is far less important. In an email earlier this year he wrote:
“Is a principal a leader by being given the title ‘principal?’ Is a CEO a leader by simply being chosen by the board?
“Actions are what define leaders, not nouns. Effective leadership is accomplished through relationships–uniting people to achieve a common goal. Leaders can use their title to accomplish their goals but using the title of ‘principal’ or ‘CEO’ too often destroys the bonds of relationships.
“When we focus on leadership as a verb and not a title or noun, we realize that leadership takes place each day at all levels of an organization. …
“By beginning to remove the hierarchical definition of leadership we unveil the equal, but usually neglected partner to leadership, followship. Leadership is invigorating and inspiring as well as a trendy and attractive term. Yet, you cannot lead if you do not first learn how to follow.
“Leadership transcends every level of an organization and therefore followship must as well. There are times to lead and times to follow. The health of an organization depends upon individuals developing both of these skills. How would the American Revolution have resulted if everyone wanted to be George Washington? How would an athletic team fare if everyone suddenly became the coach? How would the New Testament be different if the Apostles decided they wanted to lead instead of Jesus?
“Followship is a skill that is often overlooked but is an equal partner to leadership. The leaders of street gangs often possess exceptional leadership abilities. Young gang members’ inability to understand followship results in the question: Where are they being led to?”
Tell me about growing up and early leadership roles.
I went to Jamesville-DeWitt. I was involved in athletics, music, and fine arts. I was captain of our baseball and basketball teams my senior year.
I went to Hamilton College and played baseball (pitcher) four years. I was captain of the Hamilton College baseball team my senior year there.
I’ve been fortunate to be around great leaders and involved in leadership my whole life. I know that most people mention it, but family is the number 1 thing.
I was blessed to be around a mother and father (Kay and Robert), who valued hard work and selflessness and faith.
Growing up, I remember seeing my father work as a salesman all day long, and then he would go out at night to plow snow. He did that so my mother could stay home with us when we were little. Later on, my mother was a schoolteacher.
I saw my father work hard and never complain about it. It was never about him. It was about the family, and it was about commitment to our family.
Leadership is like that. It can’t be about the individual. It’s not about the individual. It’s not about me.
That’s what I learned watching my father – the hard work, the discipline, the selflessness. It was about what needed to be done for the family. Leadership is like that.
Another thing of leadership is there are going to be days when things go good and others when things aren’t going to go so well. People react however the leader acts, however the leader responds.
If students walk in during the day and they see Mr. Keough is running around crazy because he’s so nervous, how are the kids going to respond? They’re going to be nervous.
But if they walk in the building and they see Mr. Keough’s got this under control, there’s nothing to worry about – everything’s going to be good.
People pay attention to the leader. They’re always watching. They’ll respond how leaders do. They pick up on those things.
Tell me about influential people in your life.
In my mother’s world, there were no excuses or anything like that. When you commit to something, you’re fully committing to it.
I remember this story: I was 10 years old, and we’re at Disneyworld. There was a 10 o’clock morning mass. We showed up about 10:20 because the shuttle hit some traffic and came in at the end.
I’m 10 years old wanting to go on the rides. Instead, we come back to the next mass to make sure that we went to the full mass. Not many parents would make their kid at Disneyworld go to the mass again because you didn’t get there on time. It’s a commitment to something. There weren’t any excuses about it. If you were late, then you went again.
Obviously, we’re a Catholic school and you have to believe in what you’re doing. My mother had a strong faith and that was important to me growing up.
My mother and father were huge in developing my values and my core leadership beliefs.
So was Brother Joe (Brother Joseph Jozwiak), our current president, and Brother Gabriel Fiumano, who is celebrating his 70th year as a Lasallian Christian Brother this year. They were instrumental.
I had an opportunity to be our faculty representative to our board of trustees early in my career. To be around the leaders on our board and to see their view on leadership was influential to me.
Denny Owen was on our board of trustees. Denny told me when he left any type of meeting, if he thought someone in the room was upset with him for some reason, he would call them the very next morning. He never let someone be upset with something that he did.
Denny understood that relationships are key, no matter what industry you’re in. Denny knew he had a responsibility to maintain the positive relationship, the idea that we’re in this together. Relationships are fundamental to successful leadership.
Our athletic director and long time basketball coach, Buddy Wleklinksi, has an incredible way of breaking down success into individual parts and getting people to buy into how important their role is in the overall success of the team. It’s the concept of every employee having a different, yet crucial role. It’s vitally important that people view their role as not just a task but a critical element of success.
I was fortunate to be an assistant baseball coach with Tom Dotterer. Coach Dotterer is as genuine a leader that you will meet. I have never seen Coach Dotterer dislike, hate, or become angry with anyone. This is a great quality of leadership – the ability to always respond with kindness, care, and respect. Soon, those values will be part of your organization.
Give me more of your advice to be an effective leader.
First, believe in your values and stick to your values.
There are no shortcuts in leadership. Do things the right way and believe in doing things the right way. You’ll be around other people who will take shortcuts and won’t treat people the way you would like to see them treated. There are ways to take shortcuts in life. But long term, to be proud of yourself as a leader, you need to stick to your values. At the end of the day, you need to be proud of who you are as a person, who you are as a leader. So stick to doing things the right way.
Occasionally, in the short term, people might beat you out by taking the shortcuts. But you have to believe that over the long term doing the right thing and doing things the right way wins out.
Do the little things well. Sometimes by doing the little things well, you make the ordinary extraordinary.
You can distinguish yourself by doing the small things extraordinarily well.
For instance, overpreparing for every situation, for every meeting, for every single decision. Being early to every appointment. Those things make impressions on people. Be extraordinary in the little things, and you will leave a mark on people.
And don’t be scared to do the little things. Every person in this building, in any organization, is important.
When I was hired, I was asked: Is teaching the most important profession?
This was on a teaching interview, and I said: No.
Teaching is no more important than our receptionist in the front office that greets students every single morning, than our custodial staff that keeps our building immaculate.
We all have our own vocational calling and share our gifts and talent in different ways. Being principal doesn’t make me more important than anyone else. We all have our own role.
Surround yourself with intelligent people and collaborate with them.
Getting the right people on board is so, so crucial to the success of any organization. Then develop them. Develop the talent of your staff – it’s huge.
In any decision, gather as much information as possible. It can’t just be what you think. You need to talk to people. You need to talk to experts in your own organization. You need to look at data. You need to look at research. You need to think about all the pros and cons. I have not seen a successful leader that doesn’t have good decision-making ability.
Good decision making takes collaboration. It takes listening to others. It takes being honest with yourself that your initial reaction and the direction you thought you might go may not be the best when you start to gather information.
When you see effective leadership, a leader you admire, what qualities do you see?
First, they treat people the right way. They are dedicated to values, they have a commitment to values.
Leadership is not easy. As the leader, you’re going to take criticism. You’ll have people upset with you at times. You’re going to have people who disagree with you at times.
I admire this when I see it in other people: No matter how someone feels about a decision, they never let it impact how I treat them. It’s what I admire about Denny Owen’s approach.
No matter how much you disagree with my decision, I’m always going to treat you with respect and kindness, and I’m going to listen. I admire that quality in leaders.
What attributes do you see in poor leaders or ineffective leadership?
Those leaders view leadership as a noun. Those leaders use their role as the reason to direct people. Those leaders are going to be ineffective. Short term, you may get people to do a task for you. But people will never go above and beyond. If people do something just because the principal told them to, if people do something just because their manager told them to, those leaders eventually are going to be ineffective. People will do the minimal. People will do the task that they’re assigned. They’re never going to do what needs to be done to make it an exceptional organization.