Spotlight on Leadership

Head of School Darryl J. Ford delivered the annual Spotlight on Leadership lecture at his alma mater, Villanova University, on Feb. 8, 2016. His exerpted remarks to several hundred students and teachers appear below. Ford is a Villanova Trustee and graduate of Villanova's Class of 1987. 

I owe much to my time at Villanova. I received a great education in the honors program, prepared to be a teacher in the education department, loved my time as a Villanova singer, my time volunteering on campus, working in the mailroom, and serving as a peer tutor to other students.  I also made many wonderful friends at VU. 

These include the person who would become my wife, Gail Sullivan!

This assignment is no small task given its parameters of addressing issues of servant leadership in the Augustinian tradition as they relate to my leadership in the field of education at the centuries-old Quaker School which I head.

So with the theme of “Servant Leadership” in the Augustinian tradition, I come to you with a spotlight shining upon some of the characteristics which make me who I am: I come to you as some sort of leader who defines himself as a husband, father, African American male; a Christian, and history-loving guy, and collector of African American art; and, perhaps most importantly for this group, as an avid Villanova basketball fan.  I bring all of these attributes – among others – to my work, to all that I do each and every day, and to this talk this afternoon.

So with you now knowing a little bit about me, where do I begin? Like any good Villanovan, I begin with the words of Augustine:

“The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.

Recently at my school, we hosted a showing of the film “Selma” to help our students prepare for our MLK Day of Service and to learn more about the civil rights movement and protests which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As you know, throughout this country and in Alabama, state laws, policy, and practice denied African Americans the right to vote by putting in place unreasonable and unscaleable roadblocks, which precluded Black people from registering.

To fight this discrimination and to bring light to these practices, civil rights leaders planned a series of three 54-mile marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capital, for African Americans and allies to advocate for their constitutional right to the ballot.

Having just sent a group of students and faculty to relive the march from Selma to Montgomery on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, you at Villanova know well what transpired in each of these marches. In the first two marches, state troopers and police forces battled the nonviolent protesters with all of the usual weapons of the 1960’s.  On March 24 and 25, 1965, these events culminated when protesters marched a third time and successfully crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on US Route 80 into Montgomery.  Having forced the hand of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the protesters received the protection of thousands of US Army soldiers and federalized members of the Alabama National Guard, and some 25,000 people triumphantly arrived at the state capital to demand the right to vote.

Jacob Lawrence captures this moment in his renowned work, “Confrontation at the Bridge.” (Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, silk screen, Copyright Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Art Institute Chicago)

What I love about this image is the resolute nature of those marching: that they seem to be climbing a slightly elevated trajectory, but one that seems to be achievable; that people are both young and old, plainly dressed and dressed-up in their best Sunday-go-to-meeting garb. Such apparent differences but united in their will. Even in the face of what appears to be storm clouds and an attack dog, these sisters and brothers of the movement keep their eyes on the prize, which is Montgomery, which represents a here-to-for unachievable promised land of voting rights for African Americans.

More critical to me is the placement of those on this structure, the marchers on this bridge. Perhaps, they drew the short straw: these protesters who are right in the front, ready to metaphorically fight but physically face the attack dog, water guns, tear gas, state police, and chastising bystanders – who at best hurled ugly epithets and, at worse, sticks and stones and other instruments of harm and destruction.

Or perhaps they drew the long straw: The protesters bringing up the rear. Yet, they were still at-the-ready to take the place of those up front, and just as susceptible to the attack dogs, guns, tear gas as their forward peers. Perhaps, there was no long straw at all.

Not present on the bridge were still other allies who symbolically marched by building the foundation, which would allow the trip from Selma to Montgomery to succeed.  They were the organizers, the behind-the-scenes workers who made certain that the marchers had water and food, and access to federal land on which to pitch tents for shelter. While not physically present on the bridge, these allied foot soldiers made the demonstrations possible.

When confronted by a critical moment and crossing a bridge of equity and justice, where might you fall?  Would you be a leader at the front? Would you be a leader at the rear? Would you be an off-site ally, a leader who provided the organizational foundation for the fearless foot soldiers? Or might you not be present at all? Might you not be present at all?

“The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”

My pathway to leadership started with the foundation that my parents provided for me while growing up only about five miles from here, in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia. My foundation has its roots in my parents’ own formative years.

Malcolm, my dad, grew up poor, in and out of the Richard Allen housing projects in North Philadelphia. He was handsome and hungry, street-smart and charismatic, and took advantage of every opportunity offered to him.  He had a deep sense of what was fair and right. An example of this was his marching out of Germantown High School in the middle of the school day when he was informed that he could not be on the swim team. The school had no pool of its own and had to use a Philadelphia Recreation Department pool; because those pools were segregated, my father, undoubtedly the best swimmer at the school, could not be on the team.  So, he quit school….until his mother told him to un-quit school! Find a solution.  He did just that. His solution: He walked to Ben Franklin High School, where his older brother was already enrolled and a star athlete, and he enrolled himself into the integrated school – which had its own pool. And so, my dad made the swim team.

One day my dad and his brother were playing basketball at a court at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, when a college counselor showed up and asked: “Who wants to go to college?” My uncle and my father both raised their hands.  That was their college counseling!  Their athletic talents both paved their way and paid their way to higher education. My uncle first went to Shaw University in North Carolina, and my father followed soon thereafter.  Nicknamed Bones I and Bones II, they both went on to establish themselves as big men on campus for their achievements, especially in their athletic pursuits of football, baseball, and track.

Always first to the mic to speak, first to dance floor to do the electric slide, first to “step to” a bully to defend a victim, first to offer a ride or lend money to someone, first to visit the sick in the hospital, and first to show up at someone’s home to extend condolences upon the passing of a loved one, my father would have been first to the front of the line, marching hand-in-hand with other leaders, to the drumbeat of justice to right all that is wrong!

The higher the structure, the deeper its foundation.

Edith, my mother, grew up poor, in a small mountain town in western Virginia. She attended a two-room school for “colored children” because the town, the churches, the movie theaters, and many other public accommodations, including the schools, were segregated. While her family didn’t have much, growing up poor in Virginia was different than the poverty my father faced in Philadelphia. 

My mother was born in a house owned by her parents, delivered by a midwife and the aunt for whom she was named. Because her family had a garden in the backyard, and a pasture with a milk-cow and chickens and other animals about a mile away near her grandmother’s home, they always had food. Each day, the brothers milked the cows, collected eggs, and tended to the pasture, and the sisters cooked meals and did household chores. Poor but not hungry: this was a critical difference between my parents’ early formation.

For those of you familiar with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” my mother led a kind of “Elly May Clampett” existence of caring for and loving every animal she encountered, including her dog named Faye, cats, birds, a cow named Beauty and its calf named Easter, for it was born on that day.  Beyond her animals, books were my mother’s great joy.  She was as an avid reader who cherished hiding behind the living room’s gas stove, away from people, learning about the world, and dreaming about life.

While she would not brag nor want to draw attention to herself when a young girl, my mother was the smartest person in any classroom. After completing her elementary education in the two-room school-house, she had to travel six miles to the next town for high school because there was no secondary education for African Americans in her hometown. After graduating from high school, my mom left for college at the age of sixteen.

Always the first to volunteer to do the behind-the-scenes work, take the notes, organize for others, like Martha in scripture, my mother was a worker. She was a caretaker, an organizer, and a supporter who needed neither accolade nor fanfare but only the next opportunity to serve others and, as a Daughter of the King, pray daily for people and the world. Unlike our dad, who would be at the front of the line with the marchers and protesters in the limelight, our mother would be at the back of the line, supporting and encouraging others.

My mother eventually found her way to the same college as my dad.  While they never knew each other there, they met in Philadelphia at an alumni event, married, and built the foundation for what would become a blessed life for my brother Malcolm and myself.

In retrospect, the foundation that our parents provided was pretty simple:

  • The centrality of education – they sacrificed vacations, new cars, and other necessities and luxuries so we could get the best education possible.
  • Belief in God and going to church were non-negotiables in our lives. I’ll say more about this in a moment.
  • Kindness was key. We were expected to be kind to everyone we encountered.
  • Service to others was expected. We were expected to help others and understand that service comes in many forms
    • Shoveling snow up and down the street of 30 or 40 row houses
    • Giving rides to neighbors, visiting the sick in the hospital, or going to the market for those who couldn’t
    • Giving our limited resources to others because they had less
    • Sharing our musical talents at church or with friends to brighten their day
    • And on and on and on.

Serving others – servant leadership – came in a myriad of ways from our parents. While our dad, with his personality and penchant for grabbing the mic, overtly served, leading from the front of the line … and our mother assumed a more quiet posture, working and serving from the back … they both were quintessential servant leaders from whom I model everything I do. They provided the foundation for the structure I aspire to build through my leadership and service.

As with most of us, I find myself to be a confounding mixture of both my parents as I draw upon their admirable qualities to inform my work with others. Here are a few of the leadership lessons I learned from them:

  1. Show up every day and work hard. This included giving each and every job your all. Doing less was not acceptable.
  2. Meet people where they are.  I mean this both metaphorically but also physically.  Seek others out, finding them where they exist, while not beckoning them to come to you. Go to your people, seek out your constituents, meet them where they are.
  3. Try to be likable.  Often we hear the refrain, “Well, I’m not here to be liked” or “I don’t make decisions to be liked.” All that might be true; however, I believe people like to like their leaders, even when they are critical of their leaders. Being liked helps; being off-putting or smug never helps. Try to be likable in a genuine sort of way.
  4. Help people to feel good. Aspire to have people feel a little bit better after having met with you than when they first arrived.  Whether delivering good or bad news or having an easy or difficult dialogue, I always want the person with whom I am engaging to feel that I have been present to them, that I have their back, and to feel a little bit better after our meeting.
  5. Be humble. Carefully balance a leadership posture with humility and grace. This may be the most difficult thing to accomplish.  People want a little bit of leadership pizzazz but they also want leaders who are accessible and genuine and humble. So what do I take from this? After the good work is done, the challenge accomplished, the inspirational message delivered, retreat to the side of humility and give thanks to God.
  6. Give thanks to God. This lesson is the most important to me: Giving thanks to God.  While the work that I do may be perceived as leadership, I regard it as my mechanism, my way, my vehicle to give thanks to God. Augustine’s words capture this well. Again from the Confessions, Augustine says: “The happy life is this – to rejoice to thee, in thee, and for thee.”  For me, all that I strive to do is done to give thanks to God at all times.

I recognize that I fall somewhere between the leadership styles of my parents. I try to incorporate these lessons from my parents in what I do each and every day in my life. 

Today, I am pleased to lead the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. Just last year having celebrated our 325th anniversary, Penn Charter is now in its 326th year of educating students.  Founded in 1689 and chartered by William Penn on the same day that he issued the charter for the city of Philadelphia, our school is Penn’s solution to a problem: He knew that he needed an educated citizenry for the city and colony of Pennsylvania to succeed.  Quakers believe that there is that of God, the inner light, inside every person, so we strive to run the school honoring the inherent goodness of our students, teachers, families, and constituents … while upholding Quaker testimonies – core beliefs – of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and service.

The mission of Penn Charter reads as follows:

Quaker principles and practice continue to guide William Penn Charter School, a Friends school founded in 1689. Within a school community that honors difference, we seek that of God in each person. We value scholarship and inquiry. With excellence as our standard, we challenge students in a vigorous program of academics, arts and athletics. Through global connections, civic engagement and a focus on environmental sustainability, we inspire students to be thinkers, collaborators, innovators and leaders. We educate students to live lives that make a difference.

The last sentence of our mission statement expresses our vision of what we want to inspire in our students: We want to educate students to live lives that make a difference.

Such a lofty vision requires starting somewhere. Just as you do here at Villanova, our students take part in community service and service learning in many ways.

They help teach STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – to two of our partner schools; on weekends, move homeless families; organize drives for disposable diapers, food and clothing; and tutor students at nearby schools in reading and other subjects. These are just a few examples of how our students serve others.

Of the many projects I have worked on at my school, I think I am most proud of our Center for Public Purpose, which leads Penn Charter’s initiatives to have our students learn about issues concerning the quality of public schools, food insecurity, and poverty, among other critical concerns facing our society.  While I pray for the contrary, I don’t have grand illusions that my students will be able to fix what is broken with urban public schools, feed all those who are hungry, nor eliminate poverty. Rather, by having them study these issues, encountering others who are experiencing the insufficient remnant of what society allocates them, I am hopeful that my students will exhibit ethical servant leadership in the future.  Tomorrow, when they are teachers, business owners, politicians, ministers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or in whatever profession they might land, I want my students to hire with a fair wage, understand the family needs of their entry-level employee, exhibit empathy and recognize that of God in each person … because our graduates were taught at their Quaker school to see God in others when they engaged in community service and service learning, and through their work with the Center for Public Purpose.  What we are teaching students today is preparing them for how they will serve others and live lives that make a difference tomorrow. Today’s deep foundation will enable tomorrow’s higher structure.

You have been a kind audience. You have allowed me to share some of my views on leadership by thinking about art, a civil rights movement, the foundation my family set for me, and how Quaker values have informed who I am and how I lead.  As you have heard, central to this reflection has been Augustine’s words about foundation and structure.

Because I have not seriously studied Augustine in some three decades since I was a student in Dr. Bernie Prusak’s religion courses here at Villanova, I did what all good researchers do today to prepare a speech: I Googled Augustine’s quote, “The Higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” To my delight, I found other servant leadership lessons connected to this quote in something called the Twelve Laws of Santa Claus TM Blog by Christopher Hogan Lay.  Lay first speaks to the importance of humility, stating, “Humility is an important virtue. Learning to be humble is of paramount importance in most religions and spiritual traditions, and humility can also help you develop as a person and enjoy richer relationships with others.”

To become more humble, Lay suggests twelve tips, which I also believe are critical to servant leadership. Quickly, they are:

  1. Appreciate your talents
  2. Understand your limitations
  3. Don’t judge yourself or others
  4. Stop comparing
  5. Appreciate the talents and qualities of others
  6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
  7. Don’t be afraid to defer to others’ judgments
  8. Rejuvenate your sense of wonder
  9. Seek guidance
  10. Think about yourself under different circumstances
  11. Help others
  12. Remain teachable

Added to these tips, I would suggest doing what Quakers have done since the founding of their religion as they strive to understand God’s continuing revelation as it unfolds in our lives today: The asking of queries – deep questions to gain understanding about the challenges we face in society and to gain understanding about who we are as individuals.

So, I conclude as I started, returning to that confrontation on the bridge from Montgomery to Selma.  This time, not with Jacob Lawrence’s artistic rendering but with a photograph of Dr. King, and the marchers, the protesters themselves.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery on March 30, 1965. Photo by William Lovelace/Getty Images.

Here are my questions; here are my queries:

What is your marchWhat is so important in your life that it would up-end you and cause you to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery? Perhaps, it remains voting rights or is the quality of education, the education of girls around the world, issues of sex slaves or childhood slavery, food insecurity, safe water, equal pay for equal work, LGBT rights, police shootings, or Black Lives Matter. What is your march?

Is your foundation deep enough to inspire you on the march? Is your faith steadfast like Augustine’s and is your structure high enough to do noble work?

 Would you be leading from the front with Dr. King,  pushing from the rear, somewhere in the middle, or an organizational off-site ally?

These queries assume you are on a bridge, marching from your own Selma to Montgomery for a cause worthy enough to risk your own self for the rights, dignity, and justice of others.

Perhaps, most critical for today’s issues and challenges is my last query

Are you not on any bridge?

Are you not on any bridge?

As we shine a spotlight on the leadership of each and every one of us in this room and at this university:

I invite you to the bridge so that we can strive to see that of God in each and every person on this planet earth and recognize the dignity freely bestowed by our God and our maker.

I invite you to the bridge to march for equity and justice and to right the wrongs, which, sadly, we have made with our own hands.

I invite you to the bridge to “lead from the front and to push from behind.”

I invite YOU to the bridge. 

Thank you.


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Penn Charter

A Friends School for Girls and Boys, Pre-K to 12

3000 West School House Lane Philadelphia, PA 19144 215.844.3460
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