An Interview with Dr. Mahalia Hines, President, Common Ground Foundation

Dr. Mahalia Hines shares words of wisdom for the next generation of leaders, reflects on the leader’s role in creating an organizational or team culture, and lifts up the importance of faith and friendship. This interview is the sixth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.  For more about this series, click here.

Dr. Mahalia Hines, President, Common Ground Foundation; Chicago Public Schools Board of Education

Teacher. Nurturer. Mother.

What are some of your career highlights?

Honestly, I think it was being a principal in the inner city. The second highlight is working with kids in the Foundation and seeing them flourish and become successful young adults who are coming back to give back. That was one of our goals. You can’t just say it, but have to model it. We modeled the behavior of giving back and now they return from college and give back. (Dr. Mahalia Hines pictured at right.)

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

In life I received more than I gave.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

My favorite types of challenges are to work with children, and even adults, that everyone else has given up on. The ones that people don’t feel can be successful or aren’t worth putting time into. I spent fourteen years working in schools in Englewood. Being the principal of an elementary, middle, and high school was very challenging, but I also found it to be most rewarding. Witnessing students begin to thrive and come into their own with the realization that if they put in the work they could succeed…and see that someone really cared about them. Not just me, but the teachers, staff, custodians — we created a caring and loving culture. That was major. At Hendrix, the first sign of being successful was when teachers brought their own kids to the school in Englewood.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts. It’s very simplistic and gives leadership guidelines on how to work with people, respect people, lead, and how to make decisions. It’s written like a handbook. I received it thirty years ago and still refer to it. One secret that resonates with me is to be sure to look behind if you are leading to make sure that people are following. Don’t be out front of the crowd with no one behind you. You’re only as good as the people who work with you — not for you, but with you.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

Many times, during my seven years of sitting on the Board of Education. Sometimes the things that you may not be 100% for, you end up voting for in order to meet a greater good. I call it banking your favors: if it doesn’t do harm, then I might go ahead and vote for it knowing that I will be able to come back and get some of the other things students and teachers will desperately need. Sometimes it was a challenge to vote for programs that I wasn’t totally in favor of, but I knew in the long run it would benefit the kids. It’s almost like the lesser of two evils.

Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

I haven’t had that experience. I worked in the corporate world and was taught well how to navigate. It’s very important for young women to become politically astute before they jump into these arenas. You have to know the players to play the game, and know what you are not willing to give up and the things that you might compromise on. It’s necessary to know that going into any situation.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I always started off the school year by telling my team, “I’m not going to make you unhappy and I’m not going to let you make me unhappy.” I tried to create a culture where folks enjoyed coming to work. I always took time for myself, whether away or at home, by attending a stepping class or exercising. I always took time for myself.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

In order for you to develop your voice you’ve got to know who you are and whose you are. It’s very important to be spiritually grounded when you go into the world. You have to be grounded in the Word of God because that is what will keep you from feeling that you are not all that you are, that you’ve been a failure; that is what will give you your joy. While things will happen to interfere with your happiness, no one can take away your joy.

It’s real important in my experiences to have had such wonderful experiences with Black sisters. A great experience collaborating with them, having fun with them, but you need to seek out sisters who have common goals and values and a spiritual value. Take time to meet and collaborate with them on a regular basis. Don’t get too busy to form a sisterhood. They will sustain you in the good times and the bad times.

I have sister friends who have been together for 45 years. As a result of that I have started bringing young Black women together to share on their journey, so they can grow. I think there needs to be more of that. I had a lot of people mentor me when I was coming up as a principal. We need more mentoring of each other and older sisters reaching back to mentor younger women.

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