Leading by Serving

President-elect Kathleen McCartney believes that good leadership can change the world—and it begins with listening

by Elise Gibson

As Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, prepares to become the 11th president of Smith College, there are a few things you should know about her.

She’s passionate about education and knows firsthand how it changes lives. She wears her feminism graciously, but proudly, on her sleeve. She thinks the best leaders start by listening. She loves young people, yoga and long walks, independent films and orchids. And when she and her husband, Bill Hagen, move into the President’s House in July it will be the first time this former financial-aid student will have lived on a college campus. She can’t wait.Kate McCartney

In January, just a few weeks after news of her appointment made the national media, McCartney looked out the second-story window of the condo she and Hagen share—the top half of an 1860 Italian mansard Victorian, on a busy Cambridge, Massachusetts, street. Absorbing the view, she reflected on where she’s been and where she is headed. “We really love it here,” she said, pointing to a patch of green yard where the garden-loving couple planted a redbud tree. In the back, they planted a row of ornamental pear trees, and next to the street, a maple tree. Hagen even created a roof-deck garden with an irrigation system. “What a difference nature makes in your well-being,” McCartney said. “We’ve loved every place we’ve lived, but Durham [New Hampshire] was a little too rural. Cambridge is really too much of a city for us. We think Northampton will be just right.”

At 57, McCartney is ready for a college like Smith, where women’s potential leadership and excellence are assumed, where students are groomed for it from the moment they arrive on campus. “Smith has played a very prominent role in the lives of women who wanted to make a difference in the world. The mission at Smith is a big driver for me,” she said. “It’s a feminist mission, and for me, it’s about parity in the world, which is still lacking.”

McCartney, like many women of her generation, had to fight the tide as she made her way to leadership. The world she entered when she graduated from Tufts University in 1977 was built for men’s ambitions; if women wanted a shot, they had to find their own way in. Fortunately for McCartney, a couple of women mentors arrived in her life just when she needed them to show her the way.

“A friend of mine said I’m leading a charmed life. I wouldn’t argue with that,” she said. “I attribute much of the success I’ve had to good fortune, hard work and women mentors.”

She has also learned that education is a great equalizer and that with perseverance, a working-class girl from Medford, Massachusetts, can leverage her education into a career that in July will put her at the helm of the world’s foremost liberal arts college for women.

The challenges are clear: keeping higher education accessible to a diverse student body, ensuring a curriculum that meets 21st-century needs and extending the college’s reach around the world. What McCartney brings to Smith, say colleagues, is a leadership style that builds consensus and gets results. It’s based on a simple personal philosophy: Listen to what people want and make it possible for them to do their best work. “Kathy is a classic servant-leader. Leadership for her is never about herself; rather, it is about helping to move the institution forward,” said Lawrence Bacow, former president of Tufts, where McCartney has served as a trustee since 2007. “I am sure her training as a psychologist helps, but she has a terrific capacity to read and understand what motivates people. She understands that the wise person learns from all people.”

That style of leadership has served her well and given her a no-nonsense formula: “Identify the need, find the team to work on it, provide them with the support they need and back them up.”

A good leader, she said, sets the tone for an organization. When she took over as director of the University of New Hampshire Child Development Center in 1996, for instance, she found a faculty that needed inspiration to do their jobs well. She responded by fighting for the resources to send teams of teachers to Italy to observe the influential Reggio Emilia style of education at its source. As dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is located on the edge of campus, she responded to a need for an education-school community center by transforming a dull, underused floor in the school’s library into a vibrant, modern, architect-designed dining commons and group-study space. At lunchtime in January, even though classes were not in session, the place was packed, with the fireplaces burning and the sauté bar cooking. “The result is something better than we imagined,” McCartney said. “I can’t go in here without people stopping and saying thanks.”

The biggest and most far-reaching project of her career to date also came by defining and responding to a need.

Shortly after becoming permanent dean of the ed school in 2006, she saw that future education leaders needed to be equipped to transform the education sector. This led her—and her team—to consider a new style of education doctorate, one that would focus on the skills that make the kind of leader who can bring about meaningful change and reform. The result is an innovative, three-year doctorate in educational leadership, an Ed.L.D., the first new degree at Harvard in 74 years. To make sure these education professionals are grounded in policy and management, the degree is designed in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and Kennedy School of Government.

The first class of 25 students—selected from 1,000 applications—will graduate this May. McCartney is particularly proud that the three-year program reflects her commitment to diversity (60 percent are students of color) and is tuition-free. “People who enter education are dedicating their lives to public service and they can’t take out $150,000 in loans. We’ve been working very hard to raise the money for that,” she said. “This program is the most important thing I’ve worked on in my career.”

Additionally, her team created a second, research-based and interdisciplinary Ph.D. in education that will launch in 2014. The two degrees will replace the traditional doctor of education (Ed.D), which is being phased out. Of McCartney’s role in shepherding the new degrees to completion, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust told the Harvard Gazette, “She has strengthened and energized the faculty, increased student aid, deepened the [education] school’s connections with other parts of the university and elevated its impact on the world of education.”

That Kathy (as she’s always been called) McCartney has ascended the ranks at some of the country’s most elite colleges and universities—and, in the process, created policies and programs that changed the landscape—isn’t an accomplishment she necessarily saw for herself as a child. McCartney is the eldest of five children born in the space of seven years to a homemaker and a machinist in a working-class neighborhood just a few miles from her Cambridge condo. “My whole life was there,” she said. “We thought we had the best street because it had a park in the middle of it.” For many years, until the family got too big, her grandparents lived on the second floor. “My childhood was idyllic,” she said. “As my cousin describes it, ‘We had nothing, but we had everything.’ We felt so loved by our parents.”

McCartney thrived in the Medford public schools and always knew she’d go to college, even though no one else in her family had. “That was in the air,” she said. Given her success in school, she aimed high, only to stumble on a cruel double standard. “Here I was, the president of the National Honor Society and editor of the school paper, but my counselor said, ‘No, I won’t write you a recommendation for Dartmouth. You should go to a state teaching college.’”

Forty years later, that remark still brings fire to her eyes. “Every woman of my age has these stories,” she said.

She had, in fact, already decided to become a teacher, one of the few career paths she thought was available to her. She settled on Tufts University, a good school that was also within walking distance so she could save money by living at home. Tufts didn’t have an education major, so she majored in psychology, with a focus on child development. That was where she met her first female mentor. “When I took Brenda Steinberg’s child development class, reading the textbook didn’t feel like work. I got very excited by the material,” she said. In McCartney, Steinberg, now a psychotherapist, saw a gifted researcher with great potential. “Now and then, an exceptionally bright student appears who has an inquiring mind, loves learning and delights in energetically taking on research projects. Kathleen McCartney was such a student,” Steinberg recalls.

Steinberg pushed McCartney to see beyond her plans to teach elementary school, to widen her vision of the future and to apply to Yale for graduate school. “Brenda helped me see something in myself that I wouldn’t have seen on my own,” she said. “The next thing I knew, I was a 22-year-old doctoral student at Yale. It was really hard for me to see myself that way. I thought it was a bridge too far.”

At Yale, she met her second mentor, Sandra Scarr, described by McCartney as a brilliant psychologist, with whom she would go on to collaborate on numerous scholarly articles over the years. Unlike many women in academia at the time, Scarr also had children. “She helped me believe I could have a wonderful career and be a mom,” McCartney said.

Within five years, she had her doctorate in psychology, she’d married her high-school sweetheart and had the first of two daughters. She had also begun teaching—-not as a second-grade teacher, as she once envisioned, but as an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard.

Still, as she surveyed her new terrain, some things troubled her. For instance, only a handful of faculty members in the early 1980s were tenured women. None had children. “It was a different time for women. I was asked all the time, ‘Don’t you think you’re hurting your children by working?’” she said. “I became very interested in the effects of child care and maternal employment. Both are important policy questions.”

In fact, her doctoral dissertation focused on child care. “I did one of the first studies that looked at variations in child-care quality. Not surprisingly, we found that children who got higher quality care did better on tests in language development.” Later, she was a principal investigator in a 20-year study on whether early, extensive child care disrupted the mother-child bond, a popular notion at the time. “We found no evidence for it. That paper laid to rest a lot of concerns,” she said. “People are still mining the data.”

McCartney regarded her post at Harvard as a first job, “the best postdoc imaginable.” In 1987 she joined the psychology faculty at the University of New Hampshire; by 1997 she had risen to full professor. She put down roots in Durham, where she would live for 13 years, raising her daughters, Kaitlin and Kimberly.

Along the way, her first marriage ended, and in 1995, her piano teacher set her up on a date with a longtime English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy and father of two teenage boys. Bill Hagen and Kathy met for coffee on a Tuesday morning. Two years later they were married, blending their families and building an addition to Kathy’s house. “We thought we’d be there forever,” she said.

In 2000, however, Harvard called again, this time inviting her to join the faculty at its graduate school of education. The couple sold the house, moved to scenic Newburyport, on Massachusetts’ North Shore, and commuted to their jobs. When McCartney was tapped to become academic dean and then eventually dean of the graduate school of education, they decided to move to Cambridge. Hagen reduced his teaching load so that he could support McCartney in her work at Harvard. “We’re a very good team,” she said.

That partnership is clear now, as they begin talking about moving to Smith. “We’re excited about being involved in the fabric of Smith and Northampton,” McCartney said. The couple has met and sought advice from other presidential couples, including Carol Christ and Paul Alpers. “It’s going to be a great experience for both of us,” said Hagen. “Kathy has a strong sense of values. I admire her social intelligence. The job at Smith will maximize Kathy’s strengths and the things she’s concerned about both for herself and for Smith. I think it will be a good blend.”

For McCartney, she’s looking forward to all the possibilities—personal and professional—that Smith offers. She intends to watch soccer games and attend poetry readings. She loves to draw people together, to be a part of a vibrant social setting. “I’m the one in your friendship group who organizes the Academy Award party,” she says with a laugh. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll have yoga time in the President’s House.”

She also likes knowing that at Smith, she’ll be swimming with the tide, instead of against it. “I’m excited to be in a context where you can take for granted that women are effective leaders, that women can excel in any field. That’s very empowering to me,” she said. “You do all the analysis but in the end, your gut just tells you this is going to be good, this is going to be fun, this is a good fit.”

Elise Gibson is editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly. This story appears in the Spring ’13 issue.