Texas Chancellor Shares 11 Secrets to Leadership Success

If you
can’t do
anything about
something you don’t
like, stop whining and
use your energy to
develop plan B.

Erma Johnson HadleyErma Johnson Hadley

I think women can have it all,” keynoter Erma Johnson Hadley said at the Women’s Leadership Institute on Amelia Island FL in December. She’s a wife, mother and grandmother as well as chancellor of the more than 100,000-student Tarrant County College (TCC) District in Fort Worth TX since 2010.

Hadley was the first African American from her hometown of Leggett TX to graduate from college. Arriving to begin study at the historically black Prairie View A&M University thrust her into an unfamiliar world. A welcoming faculty member mentored her on how to dress and act on campus. “When I look at the faces of my students at Tarrant, I see myself years earlier at Prairie View,” she said.

With an earned master’s degree in business education from Bowling Green State University OH, Hadley has worked at TCC for 41 years in both faculty and administration. She is the first woman and first African American to serve as TCC chancellor.

Women’s Leadership Institute organizers asked her to share the secrets of her success. “It’s not a secret but there’s a lot of magic involved,” Hadley said.

1. Find a job you really love.

When you feel passionate about a job, you do it differently and others can see the difference. You’ll have very few bad days. If you found out Sunday night that you won the lottery, you’d still go back to work on Monday. If your current job isn’t one you love, look around for one that you do love.

2. Be really good at what you do.

You need to be at the top of your game. Not only will you stand out for advancement, but you’ll also love yourself more. There is no substitute for self-love.

You are being watched. As head of affirmative action back when the school called women “maids” and men “custodians,” Hadley built a reputation as a she-devil.

A year and a half later the vice chancellor, who had interviewed eight candidates for personnel director, offered her the job without an application or interview. “I’ve been interviewing you for 18 months,” he told her. He had seen that she got along with people and would do what she said.

While she was director of personnel, the chancellor appointed her vice chancellor for human resources, instead of a guy who was brilliant with finance but not interested in people. She liked a wide variety of people and had connections in the business community outside of her profession.

Not all the other vice chancellors favored her appointment as interim chancellor; one said the job should have gone to a white woman.

When the time came for the permanent appointment, she was selected despite lacking a PhD. She had more important qualifications: She was bold enough to lead in a time of crisis and she knew everybody, in and out of the college.

3. Don’t whine—do something.

“If you can’t do anything about something you don’t like, stop whining and use your energy to develop plan B,” Hadley said. How are you going to get past it? What is your plan?

Create a personal plan B for how you would survive if you got kicked out today. “You need to be bold. You do things differently if you’re not afraid,” she said.

Financial security from a partnership in a lucrative business allowed her to be bold in a period of difficulty with her boss, because it meant she could afford to walk away if necessary.

4. Don’t fight your boss.

If you fight, you’ll almost always lose. Getting along with the boss is your job. If he or she is messing with you, find a way to rise above it. Don’t take it personally; it’s not about you. Spirituality can help you to get to the next level.

You need your boss to respect you. “Be smart and get your boss to see the best in you,” Hadley said. Be pleasant to a boss who doesn’t like you. If the problem doesn’t sort itself out in three to five months, settle in or move on.

5. Leave it better than you found it.

Do your best to improve matters wherever you are. Avoid giving the impression that you’re constantly on the hunt for your next position. “You may intimidate your boss into looking for your replacement,” she said.

6. Be pleasant and positive.

Don’t listen to all the emotional hype around you. “Cover your work with smiles. Find the possible good in every situation and work toward perfecting it,” she said. When things are difficult and challenging, that’s where the smiles come in.

Once when she told her executive leadership team about something she wanted to do, the director of research gave reasons it couldn’t be done. Hadley responded, “Your job is to tell me how I can do it, not that I can’t. Tell me how it can be done and what I can do to get there.” People are looking for solutions and ideas, not naysayers.

7. Listen to feedback.

Negative as well as positive input can help you to improve. Don’t get defensive; evaluate the negative feedback before deciding whether it holds water.

One person told her not to push so hard, but to back off and lighten up. Hadley replied that she couldn’t back off, but the feedback gave her food for thought. If you think you can’t win, perhaps it’s time to back off; but if it’s an issue you must win, then go for it.

When the state legislature changed funding from “butts in seats” to payment based on student success— holding back 10% of the $55 million budget for the school to earn back by student performance—the faculty complained that they were being expected to give out good grades like candy. “No, you’re the keepers of quality,” she told them. Failure was not an option.

8. Know when to fold ’em.

As the old gambler advises in the Kenny Rogers song, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. . . .” The secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

Choose your battles. “Don’t run off a cliff or into a big hole trying to prove that you’re right,” Hadley said. When she was looking for a common textbook for their courses, the faculty suggested looking for one that covers the top ten courses instead. It was a successful compromise.

9. Know who you are.

Who are you? What do you stand for? How do you present yourself? What is your performance like? How creative are you? Most important, what impression do you make and leave with people?

What are the traits you do and don’t bring to the table? She said she’s not very creative when it comes to generating themes for a conference, but she has the kind of creativity in a meeting to come up with a way to avoid losing a million dollars in the budget.

Can you inspire others? She interviewed a candidate for upper level administration who had the personality of a limp dishrag. She thought, “They will chew her up and spit her out.”

What aspects of your younger self are still with you today? What are you carrying forward from when you were in grade school, high school or your first job?

Her family of origin was financially poor but rich in love and caring. Her mother insisted on quality, making her children redo their homework if it was messy with too many erasures. They ironed the towels and pillowcases correctly and with passion. “Don’t lose what your parents taught you,” she said.

Her ability to let insults bounce off her came from her experiences in high school as a very smart girl with very dark skin, when light skin was in vogue. She learned to stand on two feet instead of crying in the corner. “When people call you a name, think about how you got where you are. Don’t internalize their dislike for you,” she advised.

10. Check in the mirror every morning.

Look at yourself in the mirror before you leave for work. If there is something you don’t like, change it. Set personal goals and develop a strategic plan to achieve them.

That applies to both personal and professional life and how the two fit together. Already a professional when her daughter was born, Hadley worked from home for four months.

Then she found a trustworthy woman from her church to take care of her daughter. “I trained my daughter to act like a human being and not be a brat,” she said. Then she trained her husband to pick up his clothes.

11. Identify your professional brand.

An effective leader is both alone at the helm and a mediator, connector and strategic partner. In her role as chancellor, she has to partner with the faculty.

A leader must be both the keeper of the culture and an agent of change. In the words of Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track, if you stop you’ll get run over.”

Be bold, be positive and be your best self. Look for the magic to find and keep a job you love.


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, February). Texas Chancellor Shares 11 Secrets to Leadership Success. Women in Higher Education, 22(2), 1-2.

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