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‘Driving Change’ panel: McCorkell shows key leadership trait in finding capacity in others

Laura Bloomberg
Laura Bloomberg

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today Laura Bloomberg, director of the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Admission Possible: closing a disturbing divide in Minnesota’s educational landscape.”

When was the last time you admitted, even to yourself, that you have no knack for doing something that others can do very well?

The fact is that many of us have no knack for such blunt humility, for acknowledging our own weaknesses.

But the ability to recognize and admit your personal weaknesses can be a mark of strong leadership, especially if you recruit and nurture others to stand strong where you are lacking, said Laura Bloomberg, director of the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Boosting disadvantaged high school students into college was the whole point of Jim McCorkell’s vision for Admission Possible. But he realized early on that he would not be the best person to actually work with the students.

So he recruited recent college graduates to do that hands-on work. And he took responsibility for surrounding those workers with an organization that could support and motivate them.

Jim McCorkell
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Jim McCorkell

“He seems to be really driven by this deep belief in the capacity of others to do great things,” Bloomberg said. “Partly that’s a realistic belief in his own capacity to do great things, but also a realistic understanding of where his assets and his limitations are.”

We all know people who can do amazing things.

“That doesn’t necessarily make them great leaders,” Bloomberg said. “To me a great leader can find the capacity in others and can foster collective action in others. … So I thought it was really telling that he had this powerful vision and he saw himself in the vision, but he also saw the need for others in the vision. To me that is a huge part of leadership.”

Help others see themselves
McCorkell credits leaders in his own life, including his professor at Carleton College — Paul Wellstone, who later became a United States senator.

Bloomberg noted that Wellstone didn’t prescribe specific action for his students, didn’t tell them to do “this and this and this.” Instead, Wellstone challenged students to find their own strengths and apply those strengths to improve the world.

Jim McCorkell and Traci Kirtley congratulate graduates.
Courtesy of Admission Possible
Jim McCorkell and Traci Kirtley congratulate graduates.

“That’s a huge theme in leadership,” Bloomberg said. “It’s not so much that you can do amazing things, but that you can help other people see themselves doing great things.”

And McCorkell learned well from his professor, she said, judging from the fact that he has hundreds of job applicants who are willing to put in long hours for very little money because they are inspired to do the work of Admission Possible.

A brand of courage
In a cynical world, it takes courage to trust in a capacity for good in yourself and others.

McCorkell displayed that brand of courage when he turned down a big signing bonus for a consulting job and instead scratched together the funds to start Admission Possible.

His courage no doubt sprang from his childhood, Bloomberg said.

“He knew what it was like to grow up poor,” she said. “He knew what it was like to have parents who had the capacity to be successful in college only to find that circumstances kept them from it.”

So McCorkell was not guided so much by sympathy for disadvantaged kids. Instead, he was driven by empathy and a personal understanding that life’s circumstances can force people to settle far short of achieving the peak of their abilities and talents.

To achieve his own peak ambition, he needed to muster the courage to believe in himself.

“We know something about leaders and risk: that there is a level of belief in your own capacity to get things done, that you may be willing to take greater risk as long as you are dependent on yourself to be successful,” Bloomberg said. “So he could walk away from a big signing bonus … partly because of his supportive spouse and partly because he had a deep belief in his vision and a deep belief in his own capacity to do it.”

Exhilarating? Yes. But McCorkell also took on a heavy load of pressure.

“He walked away from this great opportunity,” Bloomberg said. “He is going to take this risk, and then he is going to throw himself into it. … He is not going to let himself fail.”

A scaffold for success
Still, it takes more than inspiration and determination to sustain success.
One reason that 98 percent of Admission Possible students have made it to college is that McCorkell has built a scaffold for their success. Students in the program are coached through a step-by-step process with specific benchmarks for improving their scores on college entrance exams, meeting college application deadlines and completing financial-aid paperwork.

“They have to set their own goals, so they build a structure for themselves, but still he has this sort of metastructure,” Bloomberg said.

Admission Possible’s young coaches also work within a structure of guideposts and goals.

“He understands the value of data,” Bloomberg said. “He has set benchmarks for himself too. … A big part of the structure is an elegant balance of high aspirations and realistic expectations.”

Leading into the future
Now, as Admission Possible prepares to expand to other states, McCorkell faces new leadership tests.

He walks a fine line between imposing just enough structure to support success while also allowing freedom for individuals to contribute to their own success, Bloomberg said.

“How will he think about that really important balance as he thinks about replicating this program in other parts of the country?” she asked. “Replications fail. That happens all of the time. . . . The biggest leadership challenge is understanding what gets replicated. You can replicate from whole cloth or you can replicate in a way that bubbles up locally.”

Because Admission Possible’s structure has worked so well in the Twin Cities and in Milwaukee, it would seem logical to build precise replicas in other metro areas.

But there is a risk that people elsewhere would see themselves “as following a mandate as opposed to being inspired to create something,” Bloomberg said.

And so, the challenge confronting McCorkell and others at Admission Possible is to sort through different parts of the program. Which parts succeed because of the structure? Which parts succeed because of the inspiration of people doing the work? Will students and coaches in other cities – say, Portland and Chicago – be inspired in the same way?

“How they recruit AmeriCorps volunteers and how they build relationships with schools may be far more idiosyncratic and might look very different in Milwaukee than in St. Paul,” Bloomberg said. “That’s where a good leader has to figure out where the strengths are , where to hold tight to a model and where to give in to flexibility.”

So once again, McCorkell faces a need for blunt humility as he works with Admission Possible’s board of directors to determine whether he is the best leader for the national organization.

“He would like to make this his life’s work,” Bloomberg said. “But it’s a mark of a good shared leadership model that they don’t take that for granted.”

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