[The Leader] How Do You Replace a Legend?

Happy kids 2

Leaders come and go, some without notice, and some that leave a void like that special friend who has moved away.

Leslie Roffman will retire next June from The Little School at the end of the 2016 school year.

I will miss her. So will a community of thousands of parents and kids.

In 50 years as a faculty and staff member,  a student and a parent, the number of administrators I’ve known that are both really liked AND respected I can count on three fingers.

Leslie Roffman is one of them. Dr. Jerry Whipple, my colleague Ed Whipple’s dad who worked at Willamette U, is a second. My grad school classmate and friend Harry Le Grande is the third.

And in Leslie’s case she is not just liked, she is loved. Respect is near universal.

When she and Tim Treadway founded The Little School in 1984 creating a preschool to provide individualized, quality attention to children, families and staff, the program was rare if not singular.  It was revolutionary to create an enriching, supportive environment where everyone thrives and families and teachers learn as much as the children. It took courage and gumption.

The fact of the matter is that being an educational administrator is one of those jobs where it’s hard to please many and seldom most, and the people in the community most involved (and frequently with the most “spare time”) are those often least qualified to offer advice. Potshots are easy and cheap, and many administrators adapt a survival technique known to all of us as “don’t rock the boat.”

Leading, though, is both a case of leading from the back as well as leading from the front – the latter skill rare for anti-boat rockers. And while building consensus is nice, taking a stand and bringing your followers along is equally important.

Leslie pushed full inclusion when it wasn’t known or likely popular, and transformed the program from mostly white bread to highly diverse by force of will and her ability to select who was in – and who was out – through the admissions process. Counter intuititvely, full inclusion and increased ethnic/family structure diversity made the program more desirable for admissions, not less, and teachers better trained, not drained from spending time with the 1 or 2 special needs kids in each class.

She guided change in multiple aspects of the program through the years, always polite, always pleasant, and always willing to tackle an issue that any number of leaders would have saved for the next guy or gal who had the job; courage with a smile.

Leslie Roffman is one of those people whose leadership style changed as she and the program matured, and it’s no wonder that the work that she and the staff have done made the program nationally recognized. Not just “good enough,” but really good.

So how do you replace a legend?


And with the hope that the person you select possesses a cool head and a warm heart; the courage to lead an organization to an unknown future rather than the false safety of a familiar past.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well).