Interview With Ron Clark

Ron Clark - The Power of Positive(full interview)

Ron Clark, the founder of The Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta and author of Move Your Bus, talks about the importance of building relationships and staying positive.

[MUSIC PLAYING] Ron Clark, welcome to the BB&T Leadership Series. 

Thank you, sir. 

Glad to have you on the Series. 

I appreciate you. 

And thank you for letting us do it here at the Ron Clark Academy. 

Yeah, we're excited to have you here. 

It's your 10th anniversary. 

Yes, sir. 

It's exciting. For those of you that have not met Ron Clark. This is an outstanding individual, who grew up in Eastern North Carolina, as did I. Worked on a farm, as I did. But decided to be a teacher, went to Harlem, did such a phenomenal job. Wrote a book. Been on Oprah. There's a movie written about your life. You've been to the White House. You've gotten to be awarded the Disney American Teacher of the Year-- an outstanding individual, making a great contribution to the world. Thank you for joining us on the BB&T Leadership Series. 

Thank you, sir. Thanks for having me. 

I want to start out with something from your latest book, Move Your Bus, which is a great book. If you haven't read it, you need to read it. But in it you tackled, heads up, something that 95% of leaders will not tackle. You said, "Some days I just feel like I can't do this again. I can't make it. I had to drag myself out of bed." 


Tell us about how that experience-- how did you get to where you could push through that? 

Well, when I first started as an administrator, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. And I didn't realize that dealing with people and managing people would be so challenging. Managing kids, I had that. Once I was in charge of people, I realized, well, people are very needy. 


There are mistakes. And there's issues, and there's drama. There's so much going on when you're an administrator, in the back end, that no one else knows about. You're handling all different types of situations and problems. 

And so some mornings I did feel like, I just don't want to get up. I wake up, and I feel like there's a ton of bricks on me. And I'll hit the snooze button, and I'll hit it again. And I'll say, I just don't know if I want to do this today. And then sometimes I'll say, I don't know if I ever want to teach again another day in my life. And my name's on the school. So how am I getting out of it? I'm stuck. 


So I would pull myself up. And I get to the school. And right before I walk in, I say, Ron, you have one job. As a leader, your job description is be in a good mood, because that is the most important thing. If you're in a bad mood, if you're upset, if you're negative, negativity is going to spread. It comes from the top. 

And so I walk in that door. Hey, everybody. What's up? Let's have a great day. And I just try to force myself to be happy. And what I found is that sometimes after 10 minutes of pretending like I'm in a good mood, I'll feel like, I really do feel good. 


I will be in a good mood. And so I think sometimes people allow themselves to be in a slumber, in a funk. And you go around the office-- hey, to everybody-- and then you just spread that sludge. But you have the power through your personality and your energy to spread positive energy if you can just change your mindset. 

In 2007 when the school first opened, people said, well, how's it going? Because I run the school, but I teach all day. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I got headaches. Eighth grade mom's on my nerves. The seventh graders-- discipline problems. The board members don't understand what we're trying to do. 

And what I found is that when I would say those things, my staff would say, well, who does that eighth grade mom think she is? And they should understand what we're doing. And you know what? The seventh graders were rude for me, too. And I was like, oh, my gosh. Negativity breeds negativity. 

So I go into a staff meeting. Had a bad day. I say, you know what everybody? Let's get to work. I love y'all. You know what? I had a great day with those sixth graders. Aren't they a great group of kids? I love them. I love y'all, too. Let's get to work. 

And my staff will be like, well, those sixth graders, I guess they are great, aren't they? We love you, too. Let's get to work. So it's just the power that you have as a leader. It's profound. 

So you talk a lot about in your book, and when I've toured the school with you, you talk about how you always have high expectations. 


Talk a little bit about that as it relates to you and the teachers. But also, you expect every student to have high expectations. How does that work? 

The more you expect from people, the more you're going to get. I expect a lot of my students. I grew up in Chocowinity, North Carolina. My grandmother had a lot of rules for me. Rules about how to be a good person, how to treat people. A true Eastern North Carolina, as you know, upbringing. 

And so when I started teaching, I realized people aren't teaching these manners anymore to kids. So I made a list of 55 rules, and I was very specific. And I taught them exactly what I expected. What I found is that once I showed them how to handle a situation when someone bumps into you, how to turn on your homework, how to ask for help, it just changed the climate of the classroom. And so I learned, being specific with people, you're going to get better results. And when you expect a lot, the kids are more likely to get there. 

This is the same with my staff as well. I expect a lot of everybody around me. I have this focus on excellence. If we're going to do something, we're going to do it right. And whenever someone makes a mistake or something goes wrong, the first thing I do as a leader is I say, was I clear? Was I very clear about my expectations? 

Now if I was very clear, then I hold them accountable. We'll have a conversation. Usually, I'll say to myself, well, I wasn't clear enough. I should've been more clear about my expectations. 

My dad taught me a lesson about that when I was working on the farm as a young kid. A lot of times I would do things halfway. And he would always stop me and say, son, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. And that's that concept, if you're going to do something in life, put your signature on it, do something you'd be proud of. Make it the best you can be. 

Exactly. We had a situation here where we always send our incoming fifth graders this t-shirt with their school year on it. We're excited to have you come. And I said, y'all, I have this idea. Why don't we find some dragon DNA and we'll grow a life-size dragon and have the dragon hatch eggs. Let's stick the t-shirts in the eggs, bury the eggs in these big crates of dirt, and ship the crates to the kids? Wouldn't that be much more fun? Our mascot's the dragon. 

And so my staff said, I don't know how we're going to do it. Maybe we'll just take a sheet of paper, print an egg on it, cut a slit through it, stick the t-shirt through it, so it's coming out of the egg. I said, no, if we're not going to do it right, we're not going to do it at all. So let's figure this out. 

So we got donors and sponsors and people to come. And we got all these crates made and shipped to the kids' houses. Can you imagine as a kid? You open the door. You see this big crate. My name's on it. Then you open up-- you dig through the dirt. You find this big egg with your t-shirt. It's just cool. And it's a moment. 

I always say, if you're going to be here, be here. If you're going to lead, lead. This is our life. And if you have a chance to do something, go for it. Don't just do it halfway. If you're going to do something, then do it right. And make some magic. 

So let's talk about how that gets translated into your book. it's a great book. And you do a great job of using the bus analogy. 

Yes, sir. 

But for the viewers who may not have had a chance to read the book yet, talk about the joggers, and the riders, and the walkers, and how that plays in life. 

Basically whatever organization you're with, I look at it as a bus. So picture your organization like a bus, and however far the bus goes, that equals success. So we're going to Fred Flintstone it. We're going to put our feet through holes in the floor of the bus. And we're going to try and move it. Because what moves the bus, what moves BB&T, what moves the Ron Clark Academy, what moves any organization is the people. It's very often not the product. It's always the people. 

When you surround yourself with a great group of people and a great team, you're going to have success. And so we hope everyone will drop their feet and run, because the runners push the bus. Runners are awesome. They come early. They stay late. They have good energy. 

Then you have joggers. And the joggers do OK. They keep up the best they can. They contribute. But they're not a runner. It's like the teacher in high school that's in charge of the prom. She'll do the prom, but she will complain about it all the time. She'll say, oh, my gosh. These kids have changed the prom theme on me three times. They want to complain, because they want to draw attention to what they do. 

Then you have a walker. And the walkers are kind of being pulled by the bus. They're the ones that are complaining. They're negative. They look around at the business, and they're constantly talking about everything they don't like. I said that to one teacher one time, and she said, well, I'm just pointing out everything that needs to be fixed. I said, well, if you're not the one that's going to fix it, you're just spreading negativity. 

And then you've got riders. And the riders are just sitting on the bus. They're dead weight. I used to put, as a leader, all my energy into fixing them. Because I said, you know what? I can fix these riders. If I can get these riders to go, that's the problem. If I can get them to go, this bus is going to fly. And I found that if I put my whole heart into them, that a rider will walk. But I realize they're never going to run. And that is not revolution. 

So what I did was I put all my effort on my runners. My best, encouraging them, supporting them, giving them autonomy and freedom, letting them take risks going forward. And I cultivated them. And once I cultivated my runners, that's when revolution happened. And that's kind of the whole mindset of what we do at the Ron Clark Academy. 

Now, so we've got one other player to talk about. The driver and powering the bus. You talk a lot about the power of the bus. 

Yeah, the driver is the person who's in charge. You're the leader. So you've got your whole team of runners and riders and everyone. And I think the most important thing that a driver can do is to have passion. You've got to believe in the organization. You have to work hard. 

And so the driver has to be somebody who's humble. You've got to be willing to not try to put yourself above others. You want to make a team-type of atmosphere. And you've got to have passion. You have to really believe in what you're doing, because if you really believe in it, others are going to believe in it as well. 

So I've found in life that some people are quick to change. Some people can be plotted into changing. Some people just don't believe they can change. What's your concept about, can people change? And what is it that causes some people to change and other people to not change? 

I think that everyone can change to some degree. But some people in the organization, it's not worth the effort. Because to get them to change, it's like their screw is so tight that I would have to use all the WD-40 in the world to get it to go. And I ain't got all that WD-40, and someone else is much more willing to change. 

Part of what I do as a leader is I want to be bold and different. That's why we have a slide in our school. I say, everyone's taking the stairs. Come on y'all. Let's slide as an organization. Let's be different. Let's take chances. Let's go for it, while at the same time, looking in the past and pulling the best from what we already do. For example, when people meet me, they think, oh, it's so different. He's so out there. 

This school is about traditional Eastern North Carolina values and manners, old-fashioned respect, and discipline. I love those things. So I pull it. But in terms of how we educate kids, it's about being innovative, creative, clever, and bold. 

So when you're talking about change, you've got to get people to buy into the mindset of, I don't want you to change everything you believe in. We want to take all the best from the past. But now let's look forward to the future and try to find ways to make something improve and better. 

And that's why this school is different. We caused a paradigm shift to happen in the minds of people. If you've never seen what change can do, or if you've never seen how something different can work really well, you are resistant to change. So when people come to visit our school, they see that different is better. Once you get people to realize different can be better, they're much more easy to turn. 

You talk in the book about keys to acceleration, from where you are to where you can go. Any thoughts you'd like to share about that? 

Sure. I would just say, the key is to have a clear plan, and to make sure that it's detailed. Everything that I do, I want to make sure that everyone on the team knows. Here's what we're doing. Here's our plan. 

And I used to, as a leader, think, if we're going to accelerate, if we're going to push this bus, I have got to be in charge and over everything. It was after a few years, I realized I'm going to die. I was like, I can't do this anymore. And so I had to teach my team how to be leads, how to take ownership to it. And what I found is that once I relinquished some of the ownership and the leadership to everyone else, they owned it more. It helped us accelerate. 

Also if you're somebody, and you're like, well, I know I'm a rider. And I know I'm a walker, and I want to go faster. The key to acceleration is who you surround yourself with. If you surround yourself with positive people, who are doing great work, what's going to happen is you will be better. You want to have conversations with people in the organization who are positive and that's going to be helpful. 

So if you know you can't be a runner and be that type person. You can walk across the hall to the person that has the potential to do that, and you say to them, I'm proud of you. I can't be you right now, because I've got some family drama, but I'm proud of you. Now I want you to go for it, and I think what you're doing is awesome. 

That allows you to move into the category of runner as well, where you're accelerating. Because you may not be able to want to accelerate right now, but if you uplift others who are, you're contributing to that bus moving. 

At BB&T, I talk a lot about enjoying the journey. You talk about enjoying the ride. You obviously enjoy your life. Do you find that in the culture, you built in the school, even with the challenges that I know a lot of these kids have outside of the school, are you able to help them see that they can control whether or not they enjoy the ride? 

I think so. In a school, whether it's leadership or my kids, it seems you're always looking for the goal. Like, for example, students are always preparing to take an integrate test. They're preparing and you got to get your test scores for the integrate tests. And as a staff, we always seem to be planning, oh, we have this big event coming up. Or now we're looking at this coming up. 

And so, one thing that we tell our students and our staff is enjoy the ride. You want to embrace every day. If you going to be here, be here. You have to walk down this hall anyway. If you're going walk down hall, why not smile at everybody? Why not enjoy it? 

Right now my staff is getting ready for this big event that's actually tonight. And so for weeks and months, we've been preparing. And it's been stressful. But I've told them I said if the journey to get to this day is stressful, then the outcome of that day is probably not going to be worth it. 

But if we find a way to enjoy the planning, the preparation, the work that's gone into this. If we find a way to laugh, to enjoy what we're doing. My goodness, that day is going to be the most magical day ever. 

And it's the same with kids. When you're in a classroom, and preparing for a test, if it's boring and you're not enjoying yourself, you're not enjoying the journey. But if you can make the journey magical, what's going to happen is the result is going to be a much better outcome. 

You talk a lot about having a culture of excellence, which is kind of related to being your best and doing your best every day. Can you give us any thoughts about how a company like you has created clearly a culture of excellence here. If you're a leader of a company watching this, how can they think about creating a culture of excellence. 

First off as a leader, you have to determine what is excellence to me? Because if you're expecting excellence from everyone in your organization, but they don't know what's your idea of excellence is, it's going to be disjointed. So as a leader, you should try to say, OK, here is my expectations. Here's my plan. Here are things that I value, and this is what I'm looking for in my team. And so once you're clear, the results are always going to be a lot better. I think that's the key. 

If you want to have excellence. You also have to exude excellence, be clear about excellence. Let everyone know. This is what we do in this organization. For example, I think one of the things that we do here, that happened because I was clear about it, is how we talk to kids. If any kid comes up to me, Mr. Clark, I got a question. Yes, Buddy, what's going on? I will stop and look right at that kid. If an eighth grader, hey, Mr. Clark. I'd say, Yes, what's going on? 

I just stop, and I look at them. And I let the whole world go away. I learned it from my mom at a Piggly Wiggly. My mom and I, when I was a kid, we'd go to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. She would talk to everybody, even people I knew she didn't like. She was so kind, and she would stop and take as long as they wanted to, and then she'd go on. 

I watched my dad at the lumber yard. He talked to everybody. He'd look at them, and that makes them feel special. We went to the White House. I learned it from Bill Clinton because I got honored with this award and I'm there with Bill Clinton and my class. I said, President Clinton, the best teacher I've ever known is named Barbara Jones. She's shy. She's over there hiding behind that Christmas tree. Will you go tell her you're proud of her? And he said, come with me. 

And we walked over there behind the Christmas tree. And he took her hands and pulled them close. He said, Barbara Jones, I am so proud of you, and I love you. And he just stared at her. She said it was like the Christmas tree went away. The White House was gone. She said he made me feel like the most important person in the world. 

So to be specific about what I think excellence is, I told my staff, we will always do that. Whenever anyone wants something, you stop. You look at them. You focus on them. There's always time for people. You've got learn to make people feel special. I want you to find out when everybody's granddad's colonoscopy is going to be. I want you to learn everybody's pets' names. 

We do a test during the summer where my staff has to memorize the name of every student's parent in this building, because I want you to know the mama, the mama's boyfriend, the grandmama's name. These are things to me that mean something. 

Once I was very specific with my staff that this is what I think excellence is, then they knew. Oh, he wants us to do these things. This is excellence in his mind. And then they've done it. And that's one of the ways that we help the bus accelerate. 

I just want to make the point for our audience. You make the point in your book. Some people would say, well, he's a teacher. I'm a banker. I'm a lawyer. The principles he's talking about may not relate to us. 

What I've found, having read your book and having known you for a number of years, is the very same concepts and principles that is making this an excellent place for kids to learn, apply completely to the business environment. Is that what you found this well? 

Yeah, it's all about passion, relationships, expectations. It's the same thing. Yes, this is a school. But make no bones about it, this is a multi-million dollar organization that we have built here, where teachers come from China, Russia, Ireland, Finland, all over the country, around the world. They come here to learn how to be the best. About 400 educators a week come here from all over the world. 

This is a business we run. And so if you're thinking, oh, that's a school. It's different-- Mhm mhm. Mhm mhm. This is a company. This is a business and the principles apply in all situations. 

And I just want to make also the point, because I was confused about this when I first visited you. Because you have this outstanding track record. All of your kids graduate. All of your kids go to college. So I naturally assumed, like business people would, that you must only get the cream of the crop that come here. That's not true, right? 

No, I've always tried to put myself in situations where I worked with kids that others said couldn't do it, or others may not have believed in. And so at our school here, if I only had top kids in my class, people would not come-- 400 teachers wouldn't come a week to watch me, because well, no wonder he has success. 

So I have all different types. One thing they have in common is that for about 75% to 80% of the kids in our school, the average income of the family is around $34,000 a year on average. We do have a small population of kids in our school who come from higher income families. But it's small compared to the vast number of those who come from lower income situations. 

Well, I know when I visited your class, where you were actually teaching fifth graders. And you gave us, the visitors, a chance to ask the kids some questions. And I asked this one young girl a question about life and purpose and success. And she gave this phenomenal answer. It was incredible. And then afterwards you told me, she's homeless. 


The point is everybody has the opportunity to learn and grow. Good leaders can help bring that out. They have to choose, but they can help bring that out. 

As we move towards the end of the video, I want to talk about what I think maybe is the most important thing. And that is the essence of life and the essence of what we all should be looking for in life. And if you don't know why you're here, then any little bump in the road can get you off track. Talk about your personal why in life. 

I think when it all boils down to it, I just want to help people. I could say a lot of things. But when I built this school, I had the intention of, I'm going to change the lives of these kids. I'm going to make their lives better. And I'm also going to invite educators to come and to learn and to spread it. I wanted to make an impact. 

If you're going to be here, let's be here. Let's help people. And so I think, at my core, I just have this desire to help people. And I think if you are a leader, and your underlying desire, let's help people, I think you're going to be successful if that's your why and that's you're intent. 

Now if you're intent is money, or a job title, or prestige, or a plaque, you're never going to get quite where you want. But I think if you inherently are like, I just want to help people. I think that's going to lead you to the top. 

Well, interesting. That's exactly my own personal life. In fact, I wake up every day, and my goal, and my prayer is, can I do something today to help somebody be a little more positive, a little more successful, a little more happy? If I can just touch one person, then it's been a good day. 

At BB&T, our why is we want to make the world a better place to live, by making loans and deposits, but also working with community groups, working with people like you that are helping change the world. So I think all of us working together can make the world a better place to be. 

I think so, too. 

And there's no question you are doing it. I am so proud of what you're doing. You're impacting millions of kids throughout this country and the world. I know our audience is excited about having this chance to meet you. 

I just want to encourage everybody again to read this book. It's powerful, plus the other books. The 55 book is a great book. Every one of those principles are awesome. 

So as we wrap up, if you have one parting comment or advice to a parent or a leader that might be listening, any final parting advice for the listeners. 

I would just say, when you live your life, live your life with purpose. You want to have empathy. You want to look around you, and try to feel sorry for people who don't maybe have what you have or advantages. Try to lift people up. And if you have that type of a mindset, I think it's going to make you happier. You'll be more successful, and you're going to have a better life. 


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