The Monroe Doctrine

When Lorraine Monroe became principal of Harlem’s Frederick Douglass School, it was well known for violence, poor attendance, and a low level of academic achievement. Five years later, student test scores ranked it among New York City’s best high schools.

On a spring morning in 1991, Lorraine Monroe paid her first visit to Intermediate School 10, on 149th Street in Harlem. The place hardly inspired greatness. There was neither a lobby nor a playground, and subway trains rumbled directly underneath. Inside, the facility was scarred by broken ceiling tiles, water stains, and torn stage curtains.


Monroe’s tour came to an end at the dingy principal’s office — her new place of business. “How could things have gotten this bad?” she thought. is 10 (also known as Frederick Douglass School) was well known for its violence, its poor attendance, and its persistently low level of academic achievement. Her charge: to destroy is 10. In its place, she was to create a special high school, one that would defy people’s diminished expectations of what public education could accomplish in the inner city. This school would actually educate its students. It would graduate them, it would send them off to college, it would prepare them for careers.

Monroe had grown up on Harlem streets and had gone to city schools. Her mother worked in garment sweatshops; her father worked in a metal refinery. They taught her to walk fast, to enjoy people, to dance, to laugh — and never to doubt that she could do whatever she applied herself to. During high school, she was elected class president, voted “girl most likely to succeed,” and admitted to Hunter College.

After college, Monroe proved her mettle — first as an English teacher, then as principal of William Howard Taft High School, a once-troubled institution in the Bronx. She was smart and tough, with an instinctive aptitude for motivating people. She inspired kids to imagine greater possibilities for themselves. She got teachers to break out of the ruts that were dug for them by entrenched bureaucracies; she got them to see meaning and mission in their work.


Her assignment at is 10 (which she renamed the Frederick Douglass Academy) proved to be a success as well. She restored order and discipline, largely by promulgating “Twelve Non-Negotiable Rules and Regulations” — a code rooted in respect for oneself, for one’s associates, and for property. Its precepts were simple: Attend school daily, and arrive on time. Be prepared to work every day. Do homework nightly. Keep your desk area clean. Do not fight.

Kids and teachers alike were now free to focus on learning. And learn they did: Test scores at the Frederick Douglass Academy quickly shot up, placing the academy among the top of all New York City schools. When the academy’s first class graduated, in 1996, 96% of the students went on to college.

Monroe left Frederick Douglass in 1997 to found the School Leadership Academy at the Center for Educational Innovation. Today, she is executive director of that academy — a New York – based, business-sponsored nonprofit group that aims to foster creative educational leadership. Her first book, “Nothing’s Impossible: Leadership Lessons from Inside and Outside the Classroom” (PublicAffairs, 1997), distills the essence of what she has learned during more than 30 years as a teacher, principal, and consultant. A companion volume, tentatively titled 100 Things That Great Bosses Do, is due next year.


When Fast Company caught up with her, she was working on item number 72 on that list of 100.

Feed the Hunger

Businesspeople always ask me, What makes a good leader? Part of the answer is this: The leader is the drum major, the person who keeps a vision in front of people and reminds them of what it is that they’re about. People are hungry for leadership. They’ll gravitate toward leaders who have a vision. When people see that you love your work, they want to catch your energy.

People want to be about good things. There are a lot of people in schools who want to have the best in themselves called out. They want to believe that the work they do has some meaning, some purpose beyond simply making a salary. So the first function of a leader is to figure out, “Who are these guys who have gravitated to this work? How are they inspired? What are the right words to say to them?”


Leaders are lonely, because they must think and dream about their work — all day, every day, day after day. Then they must make what they think and dream about understandable to people who haven’t thought and dreamed as deeply, or as far into the future, as they have. They must believe in the dream and in the need to pursue it, and they must do the hard work of never doubting its importance. Doubts will arise — but the leader’s job is to master those doubts and to press on.

Leaders must convert their organizations from places with pockets of individual creativity into places of community. Think about a community: What are its ordinances? What does it look like? What is considered beautiful? A leader makes sure that the people who make up a community are nurtured and that their rights are addressed. A leader also takes every opportunity to convey new ideas: In meetings, memos, and one-on-one conversations, the leader hammers home the need for change.

Demand Better

Good businesses and good schools operate the same way. You take care of workers, and you recognize what makes them happy. You examine your products: Are they some- thing that you can be proud of? Schools fail when they don’t realize that they’re producing something. They’re producing graduates — human beings who can negotiate their lives and who can give back to society. That’s a wholesome way to think about work.


Leaders must demand continuous improvement. There must be an outcome every day, and that outcome must be measurable. If we’re talking about schools and children, the outcome should be that every day the kids learn something. Every day, their achievement should be higher. You should also look for things that are less measurable but more visible — better behavior, lifted spirits.

I’ve said to educators that if many of us were running businesses the way we run schools, we’d be out of business. Would you send your kid to a place where every day he wasn’t getting better? School leaders don’t talk enough about why their work is important. Why are we doing this, and how do we know whether we’re doing it well? We know by noticing what happens to kids. Service work is about noticing — and a good leader notices all the time.

Go Creatively Crazy

Creative craziness is what drives innovation. And being creatively crazy means saying, “I don’t care what the system wants. I don’t care what the system allows. You made me the principal — or the CEO — of this place. Now step back.” To be creatively crazy, you have to love what you do. But you also have to be smart. You have to look at the rules and figure out why they’re there. You have to understand that if those rules don’t make any sense, then you need to drop them. You have to be fearless enough to take calculated risks, to take a leap into the void.


Leaders have to be creatively crazy, and they have to encourage craziness. I remember the first time I addressed the staff at Taft. Up until the moment I opened my mouth, I didn’t know what I was going to say. Finally, I said, “I’m just going to ask two things of you. First, I want you to plan. And second, I want you to be magic.” Then I left the room.

I had no specific idea what I meant by “magic.” But teachers started doing amazing things — creative, wonderful things that they hadn’t thought they could do before. There’s a latent productivity in people; they’re just waiting for someone to remind them of their capacity. I had 175 staff members who were waiting to be told exactly that: “Be magic.” And those little words were powerful enough to release people to tap into resources that they’d kept hidden — and to be creatively crazy on behalf of the children. Last summer, I happened to go back to Taft. One of my old teachers came up to me and said, “Oh, you were so courageous.” Those people were just waiting to be given permission. Just waiting.

Wander the Halls

I’m a peripatetic leader. I believe in walking around and watching people do their work. If your employees don’t see you, then even people who are pretty good won’t perform as well as they could. You have to get out and congratulate staff. You have to remind them of why we’re here.


When I was a principal and I would first meet new teachers, I always let them know how I worked. I told them that I’d be in their classrooms, watching them, and that they shouldn’t be jiggled by that. And I did watch them — especially new teachers. I’d go to classes all the time. After a while, they figured out that this wasn’t about “getting them” — it was about getting them to be better.

That style worked for me because teachers knew that I could teach. I always kept a blackboard in my conference room, so that when I met with teachers, I could go to the board and demonstrate a teaching method that I knew would make a difference. Part of leadership is being able to demonstrate that you have ability — and that ability is what got you to be the boss.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

In 1983, I left Taft to become deputy chancellor in charge of curriculum and instruction. I was naive: I thought I could transfer what I’d accomplished at Taft to the entire New York City school system.


But early on, I saw that 110 Livingston Street [the headquarters of the Board of Education, in Brooklyn] wasn’t about what I was about. I knew that I wasn’t going to last there very long. I was used to being the boss, and the layers of bureaucracy there made it hard to get a great deal done. There were too many hands, too many offices. And geographically speaking, my office was too far from any of the schools. The farther you get from where the magic happens, the more you lose touch with day-to-day operations. And instead of dealing with people, you start turning out reports.

My mentor, Leonard F. Littwin, once told me, “Lorraine, you’re really good, but sometimes you’re just not the one. You’re not always the one for every situation.” It’s true. Sometimes, I fail. Sometimes, leadership is about knowing when to let go.

Of course, you can’t run an organization without compromise. There has to be a reasonable give-and-take, and you’re not going to have your way 100% of the time. But there’s a difference between compromising and selling your soul. Selling out — selling your soul — means giving up power and control. And I won’t do that.


Reinvent Your Inventions

I set out to stun people. Surprising the hell out of everybody has always been good fun for me. And once you put your openness to change in the air, once you indicate your desire to do something different, then something different starts wanting you. I’ve found that I really like leading. I love seeing things happen as a result of what I think and believe.

As you get better at your work, your organization gets better at its work: The people who do the frontline work improve. And as you transform your company, you transform yourself. As I understand more about what I do, I get better, stronger, more electric.

I’m always inventing. I like to invent the future, to dream the next thing. My father said, “Lorraine, you always go at things.” He was right: I never want not to go at things. I never do the same thing in the same way twice. That’s the juice. And organizations suffer when a leader’s juice is gone. When it’s hard to get the second leg out of bed, you should put the first leg back in and call it a day.


When the juice is there, when everything is clicking, there’s such a thing as an organizational hum — that thing you sense when you walk into an organization and you can say, “Yes, it’s happening here!” You can feel the drive of the place. I love that feeling. As a leader, you have to be able to feel in your bones that it’s working or that it’s not — and to feel that way before anyone else does.

Keith H. Hammonds ( is a Fast Company senior editor. You can learn more about the School Leadership Academy on the Web site of the Center for Educational Innovation ( Lorraine Monroe’s book “Nothing’s Impossible” was recently reprinted in paperback by Public Affairs.

Sidebar: Learning to Lead

Here, adapted from the book “Nothing’s Impossible,” are musings on leadership from Lorraine Monroe.


Becoming a leader is an act of self-invention. Imagine yourself as a leader: Act as if you were a leader until you actually become one.

In the third grade, a teacher asked me to run for student-council secretary. I asked my father, “Should I?” He said, “What’s the question? Run!” That was the beginning of my leadership training.

Don’t be afraid to break rules — but only for the sake of your mission.


I cultivated the ability to ignore bureaucratic edicts. I practiced delaying implementation of contrived and mandated “solutions” — solutions that invariably missed the mark.

A cadre of concerned, creatively crazy people can carry almost any organization.

Organizations die when they move away from the core principles of their mission, or when they fail to come up with new ways to make their mission happen.

Stroking must accompany poking.

I learned that if I let people who were angry talk or yell themselves into a calm state, they would often reveal to me how I could help them — even if only by providing an ear or a shoulder.

As you rise in any walk of life, never forget the nervousness that you felt on your first day of work. Never forget how much you had to learn — or how much you still have to learn!

As a 21-year-old novice, I knew nothing about teaching, despite the education courses that I’d taken. But little by little, over those first few days, I discovered ways of taking control in the classroom.