Deb Delisle is very clear about what makes her tick as a leader. The former superintendent of public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education is curious, connected and collaborative. And she was driven to give 1.9 million children access to a quality education.
Staying true to her core values while engaging multiple, competing constituencies is Deb’s approach to leading at the intersection of public education and state politics. In her state superintendent role, she was the voice of Ohio’s 614 school district superintendents and the bridge between educators and legislators.
“I can’t underscore enough the complexity involved in navigating all these waters. Some are very turbulent,” she admits.
Previously a district superintendent, principal and classroom teacher, Deb took on the top Department of Education role in 2008 — with Ohio facing enormous economic challenges and the call for comprehensive education reform heating up.
“Every day, I face difficult decisions that can’t be made in isolation,” Deb said before leaving the post recently. “My job is to deeply understand a situation. That requires seeking out multiple perspectives and engaging all stakeholder groups. I need to respect the history and culture of the Department of Education and our diverse school districts. At the same time, I need to make decisions about how to sustain, grow and improve our educational system.”
Deb attributes her ability to reflect on her leadership style and analyze her effectiveness to the Center for Creative Leadership. In 2004, she participated in the Ohio School Leadership Institute (OSLI) as the superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district in Northeast Ohio. The program is sponsored by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. CCL has developed and facilitated key portions of OSLI since it was first offered nearly 18 years ago.
“OSLI was such a rich opportunity. CCL created a space for me to explore my strengths, principles, beliefs and opportunities for growth,” says Deb. “OSLI centered me, grounded me as a leader. I realized that if I am clear about what I will go to the mat for, then the people around me aren’t guessing about what I believe or what is important.”
Another powerful lesson was the importance of connection and collaboration. “Throughout my career I knew to look outside my circle to learn and had built a wonderful network,” Deb explains. “At OSLI, I realized how vital those connections are for collaboration and leading in the public sector. In top-level management roles, it is especially easy to become isolated. Being part of OSLI Cohort 19 created a statewide network and provided a larger perspective for me, which was vital in my role as state chief.”