4 Lessons for Leading through Troubled Times: A Conversation with Jackie Jenkins-Scott
By Jessica Huang
How does one lead an organization to success when bankruptcy looms, buildings are falling apart, and employees are demoralized? This is what faced Jackie Jenkins-Scott as she responded to the call of Michael Dukakis to take on the challenge of leading Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Jenkins-Scott turned around one of Boston’s largest community-based health and human services organizations serving diverse, vulnerable populations and led it to becoming a thriving benchmark institution with comprehensive and innovative programs to meet the priority needs of inner city residents. She later brought her leadership to higher education, serving as the 13th President of Wheelock College, an institution focused on improving the lives of children and families.
Moderating a candid conversation with Jenkins-Scott at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Voices in Leadership studio on March 27, 2018 , Professor John McDonough from the Department of Health Policy & Management noted, “many people see us as being in really troubled difficult times right now — issues around racial justice, equity, immigration.” What can we apply from Jenkins-Scott’s experience to address the troubles facing our society today? Jenkins-Scott offers four keys to leadership, whether in troubled times or in general, that we can all learn from: humility, empathy, curiosity, and resilience.
People often ask Jenkins-Scott how she transformed the Dimock Community Health Center from a failing institution to a remarkable bastion of success. When asked this by Professor McDonough in the Voices in Leadership studio, she highlighted the efforts of her team and additional support from good people who believed in what they were trying to do. Her humility shines through in how she is willing to ask for help and share the credit. When probed deeper about how she has been able to achieve such remarkable things during her career, she focuses on the importance of learning and the call to service that drives her. This is inspiring as it suggests we can all work towards Jenkins-Scott’s example of success by educating ourselves and serving others.
“Education is power. And even though my grandparents and my parents didn’t have a college education, I was the first to graduate from college. Education is your way out and it is something that no one can take from you.
And one of the other principles…basically says, to whom much is given, much is expected. And so this commitment to service was something that was drilled into me…we call it paying it forward, that we have a responsibility to serve.”
Being humble does not mean having low standards or lacking pride in the place where we work. Jenkins-Scott emphasized the importance of ensuring the most vulnerable populations are provided quality services that enable comfort and dignity:
“I always had the attitude that I want to be proud of where I work, how I serve, and the place ought to be good enough for my family.”
This approach of caring about what gets provided to the community is also a good illustration of Jenkins-Scott’s second key to leadership: empathy.
Jenkins-Scott’s empathy for the community members being served led her to some interesting insights that enabled Dimock Community Health Center to succeed. For example, in seeing the dilapidated state of the facilities and hearing what the community thought, she realized that “physical appearance matters.” This led her to not only invest in renovations like the Laundry Building to provide critical services to women who were incarcerated, but to also seek the recognition and protection of Dimock’s historic campus by the National Register of Historic Places to ensure their buildings will never be torn down and the land sold for condos.
A leader’s empathy is not just for understanding the priorities of the population being served. Jenkins-Scott points to the importance of having empathy for staff. She understood how the staff were feeling and how to support them in doing the best job that they can do to turn Dimock Community Health Center around.
“The staff, they were incredible. But everyone was demoralized and depressed. And so part of what has to happen is a recommitment to the mission, to the values, to what we stand for, what we believe in.”
It might be hard to believe, but if not for a healthy sense of curiosity, Jenkins-Scott may never have ended up as the leader of Dimock Community Health Center and the esteemed institution might not still exist today. She shares a story from when she was first encouraged her to apply, with recruiters desiring more qualified people of color as candidates, but she was not that interested in the job. However, Jenkins-Scott remained curious and took the time to visit the campus, meet people and learn about the organization’s history. Inspired by the spirit of Dimock’s founding by immigrant women with a progressive vision for social change, she became motivated to take on the challenge of leading the institution to overcome its troubled times.
“And I walked on the campus, and something said to me, this is where I belong. It was the spirit of the women who founded Dimock…who came to this country believing that women could be doctors and nurses, and that women, poor women, should have high quality care…
And that real estate appraisal said, you have 10 acres of land here. These buildings are worthless. Tear the buildings down…One day this property is going to be worth a lot, and it can turn into condos. And something in my spirits said, over my dead body. These women who started this place, were not going to tear these buildings down. So that began a 21-year odyssey.”
This brings us to the final theme of courage and resilience, which Jenkins-Scott modeled when she took on the tough job of revitalizing the Dimock Community Health Center.
There are many forms of resilience that are needed during troubled times. Jenkins-Scott conversation raises how there is her personal resilience as a leader, the community resilience of her hometown that inspires her, and the institutional resilience she tries to build into the organizations under her charge.
1) Personal resilience: During her honest sharing session at the Voices in Leadership studio, Jenkins-Scott reminds us that it took spades of personal resilience and patience to get Dimock Community Health Center to its current levels of success. After all, the process did take a couple decades:
“So I think one of the things we, as leaders, and we have to think about is, progress doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process. We might take a step forward, we may have to take a step backwards, and we take two steps forward.”
2) Community resilience: Jenkins-Scott also shares about the community resilience she has seen in places like Flint, Michigan where she grew up, which has faced some of the most troubling times for public health when there were elevated levels of lead in their water supply:
“It’s been really tough. Actually, one of the lessons about values, and commitments, and capitalism, Flint was a thriving small city, 325,000 people when I grew up…And so now when I go back, it’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. But what we learn is something that we learned about leadership…it is bouncing back despite the Netflix series that’s going on, I think. I admire the resilience of the people in that community.”
3) Institutional resilience: Last, but not least, is the importance of building institutional resilience for long-term success and sustainability. Jenkins-Scott puts it best in her own words:
“So I think one of the important signs of leadership is the sustainability of institutions, and that was one of the struggles…we were constantly changing. Dimock is thriving today…and next week they will celebrate the opening of that new detox center. So it’s very exciting for me to go back…And it is one of my principles, that every person deserves to have their services, and care, and dignity, and high quality, and that’s happening right on that Dimock campus next week.”
As a leader, she was able to leave Dimock Community Health Center in a better place and enable the institution to keep thriving without her, so that everyone involved can continue to do their best to serve the community.
The opportunity to learn more from Jenkins-Scott does not end with this Voices in Leadership conversation. The Harvard Chan School of Public Health is fortunate that Jenkins-Scott is now serving as a Menschel senior leadership fellow and conducting a seminar on leading in challenging times to improve community health. We can all learn from her four leadership lessons and keep engaging with her to tackle challenges during these troubled times.
Story by Jessica Huang, a student in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health interested in the intersection of health, education and environmental sustainability.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a second year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in gender equity, maternal health, and health policy and governance.