Want to Know the Profound Leadership Lesson a High School Music Teacher Gave Me?

Define what is essential, attract an outstanding team, hold them accountable for results, and let them do their jobs in ways only they can.

John Warner
Control Your Destiny


I had the privilege late in her career of interviewing Virginia Uldrick, the long time founding President of the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

From early in her life Virginia wanted to be a performer. Her mother inspired her to be an out-of-the-box thinker and pursue her dreams, while instilling in her a strong sense of personal accountability. She attended Greenville High School, where her chorale director and the drama teacher helped develop her craft. She worked hard and got a scholarship to Furman University, where in addition to majoring in music she got deeply involved in music education.

Virginia apprenticed one summer with the Chautauqua Opera in New York. With limited resources to fall back on, she could not sustain herself financially. Her hopes for a career as a professional singer were dashed. Fortunately, someone back home kept up with this talented young woman, and she got a call she didn’t expect offering her a job as music teacher.

That call changed her life in a profound and unexpected way. She said,

I walked into the classroom, and all of these children were sitting around me, listening to what I had to say, and something magical happened inside. I knew the classroom was my stage.

Virginia was assigned to a school, where one of her young students was Carroll Campbell. After describing her plans for the arts program, her principal said,

Virginia you only have five dollars for your budget.

Frustrated, she stormed out of his office. The head of the English department, seeing something in her told her to visit a prominent businessman in town, Vern Smith. He pledged $500 dollars and called five other people who each pledged $500 that afternoon. That was Virginia’s first fundraising experience.

Floyd Hall, the Greenville County School District superintendent, recognized this young teacher as an aspiring champion inside the school district. He appointed Virginia to a small group of leaders to develop five-year goals for the school district. Virginia said,

Boy did I take advantage of that. We included creating a magnet arts high school in the fifth year of our goals.

Floyd liked the idea and decided to immediately start the Greenville Fine Arts Center, appointing Virginia director. She nearly fainted. The Fine Arts Center opened in 1974.

By 1979, Virginia’s vision had grown into a statewide concept of the Fine Arts Center, which she took to South Carolina Governor Dick Riley. He was so dedicated to education that he later became US Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration. Riley charged her with a vision which set the course of everything that followed.

You have to take these children to the mountaintop, and you can’t let them fall back.

With the support of Governor Riley and the local community, she created the Governor’s School operating as a summer program at Furman University. After a decade, Virginia was ready to take the next step to create, as she described it,

The best arts high school in the country and perhaps the world.

She developed a consensus for the full-time residency program with a small, core group of influential advisors. To reach out to the Legislature, the team produced a video with James Dickey, author of Deliverance and a writing master teacher for the Governor’s School summer program. One legislator she met with said he was too busy to watch the video. She put the video in a player in his office saying,

You are not too busy to see this. It’s going to change lives.

The new Governor of South Carolina, Carroll Campbell, appointed a State Senator, Vern Smith, chairman of a legislative committee to study the Governor’s School. There was a statewide competition about where to locate the new Governor's School, but no one else had much of a chance.

Throughout the interview, Virginia explained many of the promises she made to Legislators to raise resources. She also emphasized she recruited out-of-the-box thinkers as prospective faculty to immerse students in a culture of excellence. Her Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director, Stanislav Issaev, had danced in the Moscow State Ballet Theatre and was awarded the 1984 Nijinsky Prize as “the year’s most distinguished male dancer in the world,” an award previously given to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Puzzled, I asked Virginia how she was able to organize a faculty of out-of-the-box thinkers while delivering on commitments to the Legislature. She said she created policies and procedures.

I challenged her,

You take out-of-the-box thinkers and put them in the box? You hired a ballet teacher who had danced in the Bolshoi as the best male dancer in the world. Are you going to tell him how to teach dance?

She replied,

Absolutely not! He is going to tell me how to teach dance.

To which I questioned,

Well, how do you manage the creative tension of thinking outside-of-the-box while being accountable for results?

She furrowed her brow pensively as she likely considered that consciously for the first time.

I tell him what is essential for this school to exist. [In other words, that is what she promised the Legislature.] He has to give me that. Then, I will build him a stage for his students to perform at the highest level.

Wow! Tell me what I have to be accountable for, and then let me pursue my passion. That is one of the most profound leadership insights I’ve ever heard.

Isn’t that the school where we all want our children educated? Isn’t that the place where we all want to work? Isn’t that the place where all those who work for us want to work?

Over time Virginia’s model for how to provide excellent arts education matured. Inevitably, just as she had once done as a young person herself, a creative out-of-the-box student chaffed. Virginia said,

In our second year we had a student, Martin Cooper, who told me he didn’t like the design program. It broke my heart. It hurt my feelings. I didn’t know what to do.

The innovator’s dilemma reared its ugly head. Virginia’s initial response wasn’t intellectual; it was emotional. She didn’t sift through all the facts to decide whether Martin’s case had merit or not. She had the vision, raised the resources, recruited the faculty, and invested her career in building a stage for this student to perform at the highest level. For all her talk about being out-of-the-box, it hurt her feelings when a student challenged the box she had created for him.

She said,

Martin, why don’t you like the design program?

He said,

I want to be a fashion designer.

She said,

These are just principles of design, and they are transferable across every spectrum of the arts and in other areas as well, like architecture.

Not giving in, the passionate and tenacious young Martin insisted,

Great, can I do my project in fashion design?

Finally conceding, Virginia said,

He did it! And he did an incredible job! He got fabric, he made patterns, and he did designs.

Then beaming with pride, Virginia said that by working with companies like Calvin Klein, LL Tracey, and Burberrys, Martin became one of the best fashion designers in America.

In creating the stage for Martin and other students to excel, Virginia said,

The mission was not for the president, not for the dean, not for the teachers, but for that child. That child does not know what his vision is yet, fully, but he knows, ‘I want to be a dancer! I want to be a dancer!’

I interjected,

I want to be a fashion designer!

Virginia’s eyes twinkled, and she smiled softly,

Yes, I want to be a fashion designer.

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This is a lesson from my career about seeing around the corner to find opportunity in the turbulent times we are living through. How can my experience help you take your organization to the next level by defining what is essential, attracting an outstanding team, holding them accountable, and letting go? Contact me at j3warner@gmail.com and let’s find a time to talk. John Warner



John Warner
Control Your Destiny

Serial entrepreneur sharing 40 years of insights to control your destiny in our turbulent times