This Elementary School Principal Could Teach Your CEO A Thing Or Two About Leadership

7 Leadership Principles From An Unexpected Source

Wooden Sign in Front of Ohlone Elementary School, Palo Alto, California

We all know the scene. A tolerable cup of coffee, some familiar faces, a room full of uncomfortable folding chairs. After resolving some a/v issues, the speaker takes the stage and up comes the Powerpoint.

“Walk our Talk” was the name of the presentation.

The speaker took us through the core values of his organization. Seven simply stated guiding principles:

1) We want a climate of trust.

2) We want to be life-long learners.

3) We should attempt to solve social problems directly.

4) We must practice and model having an open mindset, being open-minded to new initiatives or change.

5) We need to model and practice accepting those around us as they are, complete with strengths, weaknesses, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies.

6) We need to be empathetic, and model this for others.

7) We need to model and practice taking risks and openly celebrating our successes and failures.

I found myself nodding my head more and more as the presentation went on. Like when you see a band you’ve never heard before and you realize they rock. I was pleasantly surprised. To me, these values fall into an area of common sense leadership that is far too uncommon. And I was pleasantly surprised not just to hear them, but to hear them from this source.

The speaker, Bill Overton, was not a CEO, or an HBS professor, or an author (at least I don’t think so). He was another type of impactful leader: the principal of Ohlone Elementary School, where my daughter Victoria is a 2nd grader. He was speaking to a group of parents. And he rocked it.

I left with a few thoughts:

1) My kid’s elementary school has more thoughtful core values than most companies.
2) Bill Overton is a leader I admire.
3) People need to hear the Ohlone Elementary talk. And walk it.
4) My back hurts from this chair.

I like to think that many of these values were already a core part of the way I lead in my career, and of the way my wife and I lead our family. But hearing him explain each one I also realized that Victoria has been bringing home these values since she started at Ohlone. And that’s pretty awesome. It has me thinking that Victoria might have stronger leadership and community values than some managers I’ve seen in action, but that’s a topic for another post.

These 7 core values have application in a number of areas, but for this piece I’m focusing on the workplace. As someone who has worked in organizations with under 100 employees, and over 80,000, I am a firm believer that a consistent, inclusive, and transparent operating philosophy is key to an enterprise of any size.

Bill was kind enough to share his presentation with me, so here are those core values, applied to the workplace:

1) We want a climate of trust.

Bill writes:

We need to model and practice trusting each other and believing that each of us is doing the best job we can at that moment. Our new teachers have worked really hard to prepare for their classes.

Trusting is easy when things are going well. The level of trust is measured best when things are more challenging.

Continuous communication is essential in creating and maintaining trust.

I write:

Fostering trust is an art form. Leaders struggle with what they share, how often they share, and with keeping it together when the wheels feel like they are coming off. I believe that a few vehicles help establish trust, and they all are consistent with Bill’s message about continuous communication:

  • Consistently hold 1:1s, staff meetings, and all-company updates. These are often the first (and worst) things to go when times are tough. Spend time prepping. Show up. Own it.
  • Don’t sit on the opposite side of the desk from your staff. Speak with them, not at them.
  • Acknowledge hot topics, even if you don’t have an update to share. Showing your people that you get what they are going through is half the battle.
  • Encourage people to get in over their heads, and be there to support them, but trust them to find their way.

2) We want [our people] to be life-long learners.

The Ohlone way:

We need to model for our kids our own continued learning experiences, and the accompanying successes, failures and challenges.

In the workplace:

The more you act like you have it all figured out, the more your staff will think you are full of it. Really. Of course you want to be cool and confidence inspiring, but you should also want to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Acknowledge that you learn from experts on staff, from your board, from others in the industry, and that those that compliment you make you and the company better.

Share articles or books you’ve read. Come back from a conference and immediately share learnings and ideas – and make your team do the same. It messages that we all – even the boss – are always learning.

3) We should attempt to solve social problems directly.

Bill writes:

We each need to practice being personally responsible and initially going directly to the source of our concern.

If that doesn’t work, go to a higher authority.

Venting has a role, but it soon afterwards needs to go to the source, otherwise it becomes destructive.


Escalation shouldn’t be a bad word, but hearing it makes me sick to my stomach. One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from ‘execs’ who should know better, is people complaining about their peers when they haven’t tried to address the situation themselves. It is not OK for them to throw their hands up and not think about solutions.

One important caveat: Some situations should go right to management or HR, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Inappropriate behavior, harassment, illegal activity, or anything that smells like any of the above are a totally different animal. Make sure your people know where to go with concerns like these without fear of retaliation.

But for most social problems in the workplace, people need to attempt to address them directly with the source. Here are two methods to try:

The ‘duh.’ When someone attempts the premature escalation with you, ask them “What did (s)he say when you spoke to them about this?” The lightbulb should go off for them that you want them to attempt resolution directly, and that they should want to go this route.

Starbucks (or Jameson) diplomacy. Encourage one party to take the other outside the office. Clear the air in a neutral setting, and talk it out over a coffee or a drink. Break bread, and talk about your lives! Everyone has passions outside of work that make them more human, more relatable. A variation on this one: take your team out for a happy hour, or whatever social outing best fits your culture. It is time and money well spent.

Sign in front of Ohlone Elementary School, Palo Alto CA

4) We must practice and model having an open mindset, being open-minded to new initiatives or change.

Bill Overton writes:

We must practice and model having an open mindset,  being open-minded to new initiatives or change.

We must also practice and model having a growth mindset, which in part means that hard work and persistence will facilitate growth.

Chris Eberle adds:

This was the point in Bill’s presentation where I wanted to ask him to please hit the corporate conference circuit. Think of this in the context of change-resistant employees. Maybe they have been around for a long time, longer than you. Maybe they feel like they tried your idea 5 years ago and it didn’t work. Maybe you have some processes that everyone follows just because they’ve always been done that way.

Growth doesn’t just mean KPIs moving up and to the right. It means evolution. One way to foster evolution is through your senior staff. Use a portion of a staff meeting to talk about the importance of getting people enthusiastic about new projects, and about change and growth. The corporate sociology in that group will have even your change-resistant managers embracing these challenges and getting their teams on board.

5) We need to model and practice accepting those around us as they are, complete with strengths, weaknesses, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies.

The talk to be walked:

Ohlone wants its students to be tolerant and accepting of others.

I would just add:

The Breakfast Club

While an organization will be well served in having a clear set of core values that everyone embraces, it will be even better served by having a diverse workforce that embraces that diversity. Nuff said.

6) We need to be empathetic, and model this for others.

Bill writes:

We need to look for ways to engage our kids in learning to be empathetic. We need to model this as well.

We also need to be open to ways for students to help others  locally and/or globally. We also need to model this.

I write:

As Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ said: “You can never understand
someone unless you understand their point-of-view, climb in that person’s skin or stand and
walk in that person’s shoes.”

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL.org) put out a white paper on  Empathy In The Workplace that is a wonderful, data driven summary of why this is important, and how to turn that into action.

Some highlights from their work:

  • Leaders today need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings, or other countries.
  • Giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn, enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.
  • When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected and trust can grow.
  • Working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences.

And they offer this ‘how’ resource on being an active listener:

image of attributes of an active listener(from CCL.org)

So, do that. 

7) We need to model and practice taking risks and openly celebrating our successes and failures.

The Ohlone Way:

We need to model and practice taking risks and openly celebrating our successes and failures.

A cutting edge school will have more innovative attempts fail than succeed.

In the workplace:

Move Fast and Break Things.

Fortune favours the bold.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

As far back as 2nd century BC, and in present day at companies like Facebook, there have been leaders who encourage their people to take risks. When I was learning to write, the focus was on perfectly penned letters and flawlessly spelled words. And I wrote perfectly, flawlessly, boring stuff. Now the kids are writing page after page of adventure, science, mystery, whatever their amazing little brains crank out. It can be a little rough on the eyes, and the phonetic spelling can be hilarious, but they are creating. And it is awesome. And they have supportive teachers pushing them to try without fear of failure. And yes, Ohlone also teaches spelling and handwriting in addition to writing.

The last slide of Bill Overton’s presentation sums it all up:

Let’s hold ourselves and each other to these standards and blend our belief systems with our actions.

Poster at Ohlone Elementary School, Palo Alto CA
Ohlone Elementary School, Palo Alto CA
All School Photos By: Dmitri Lieders

For more information on Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto, California, visit the school website.

UPDATE: We just found out that Bill Overton will be retiring this year after 35+ years of teaching hearts and minds at Ohlone. Thank you, Bill, for all you’ve done for our children and our community. Maybe you’ll hit the corporate conference circuit after all. They could learn a ton from you!

Chris Eberle


  1. Chris…I was at that talk and, while I loved it as an important way of nurturing Ohlone’s values and community, I didn’t make the leap to the implications for the corporate realm. Lovely extension of these values from one “box” to another. Thanks!

    • Thanks Deb! Glad you enjoyed. And it was great to meet you the other day. Also I sent my first mambogram! Looking forward to getting my parents set up.

  2. This was an incredibly enlightening piece. Thank you for writing this, Chris! I have always admired your leadership during our Meebo days, and I saw how your ideals influenced the way Jack has handled our team. To this day, I consider your guys’ leadership to be the gold standard! I’m happy to continue learning from you through this blog. 🙂

    • Thanks Bianca. That means a lot to me. And I just saw jack for coffee this week! Hope all is great with you.

  3. True that inspiration often comes from places you wouldn’t have thought of…
    Focus of the ”7 Overtons” above is now very much the focus of leadership and dealing with empoyees here in Denmark after 5 years of strict KPI rule!
    Looking forward to more inspiration from your blog 😉

    • CLH! Thanks for being a part of the ginger global expansion!

    • Thanks for reading, man. Really glad you enjoyed it and I hope all is great with you!

  4. I linked here through Designmom – and so glad I did! I work at an K-8 school and will be sharing these principles at our next Social Emotional team planning session. Thank you! Wonderful insights.

    • Thank you Tracy! I’m so glad that you clicked through from the wonderful Gabrielle Blair’s site! She was so kind to share. I hope you have a successful planning session and it’s awesome to hear you’ll be sharing. Where is your school located?

  5. Loved this. I’m working on a refresh of our mission/vision/values (at my day job) and this piece gave me some great ideas.

    • Thanks Karen, that’s awesome! Repurpose at will. 🙂 I look fwd to checking out your blog.

  6. Hi Chris – my school is located in Westchester, CA, and I mistakenly wrote “K-8”; we are a JR-K through 8 school. (I left out my own grade!) 🙂

  7. Chris, your daughter is fortunate to be exposed to these principals, and to have someone like Bill bring these into the daylight. Nice job being on the lookout and great anchoring into the Corp world, that can often feel like preschool.

    Know this will find a place in a burgeoning firm in Chicago. Glad you picked up the blog again.



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