Pondering Oprah

I’ve been thinking a lot about Oprah Winfrey over the last few weeks. I’ve never seen her TV show but know that it is popular. She  routinely makes the top 50 lists of the most powerful women in the world hosted by Forbes or Fortune. I am always interested in how people in such positions decide to use their power.

Oprah made headlines last month for some alleged abuses by a head mistress at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls she opened in South Africa in January of 2007 (wikipedia link).

Back in July of 2006, I shared my dream of boarding schools, such as that built by Oprah, being safe havens for any who need them. This idea, for me, started back at least a year prior in an international entrepreneurship class where we were asked to come up with international franchise opportunities. I presented a scaled down version of a non-profit boarding school that grew during my visionary leadership class as described here.

My thought on hearing about the scandals at Oprah’s school was not “oh the horror” but “oh my gosh she built my dream!” Oprah started this dream back in 2000 after a meeting with Nelson Mandela. She almost gave up when people could not see her vision for this school. She built a magnificent learning center for young women in South Africa. The mission of her school is simple.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls – South Africa supports the development of a new generation of women leaders who, by virtue of their education and leadership, will lead the charge to positively transform themselves, their communities and the larger world around them. To accomplish this goal, the Academy provides a rigorous and supportive educational environment for academically talented girls who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Academy strives to equip its learners with the intellectual and social skills necessary to assume positions of leadership in South African society and beyond.

I can already envision the impact these young women will have on the future of our world.

You can learn a lot about a person by observing how they react in a crisis. When Oprah learned of the alleged abuses at her school, she literally dropped everything and went to South Africa. The headmistress accused of the assaults was fired. Oprah apologized to the students and their families. Each student was provided a cell phone and Oprah’s direct number. The girls were told to call her with any problems or concerns. It is so uncommon these days to see leaders taking responsibility. Oprah completely owned this problem, claimed it, and empowered all in her care, even if really they are only in her care in name only, to contact her directly.

I think that all of our educational leaders could learn from Oprah’s response to this crisis. The next time you see a bomb threat or shooting on a college or high school campus, could you imagine the principal or president responding in this way? You might think that these people could not possibly have the time to answer so many phone calls, to personally talk to each person who is concerned or affected. I used to think so myself. But if Oprah has time to do this, how could they not? In the face of this extraordinary example, how can any of our educational leaders do less.