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Former senator and N.C. State Board of Education chair Howard Lee spoke to members of the Chancellor's Leadership Academy Feb. 20. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Howard Lee challenges members of Chancellor’s Leadership Academy

Feb. 21, 2013

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

A good leader never debates whether a goal can be achieved, he or she “just goes out and does it,” former N.C. State Board of Education chair Howard N. Lee told a group of ECU faculty and staff Feb. 20 during a luncheon at the Chancellor’s Residence.

“All of us are born with the capacities that make good leaders,” Lee said at the event for members of the Chancellor’s Leadership Academy. “I did not grow up knowing I was a leader. Others saw that potential in me just like that potential has been seen in you.”

Lee, who chaired the State Board of Education from 2003 to 2009 after serving 10 years in the state senate, offered several insights into leadership for the two dozen or so academy members attending the luncheon.

“As a leader you cannot let your ego be a part of your decision-making. You have to believe in yourself without being sarcastic. Learn how to criticize your team members without being critical. Always share the credit, and never let them see you sweat.”

Today Lee is president of the Howard N. Lee Institute for Equity and Opportunity in Education, a Research Triangle Park nonprofit he founded to promote community engagement in support of public schools ( His career in public service began in 1969 when he was elected mayor of Chapel Hill, becoming among the first black mayors of a white Southern city. He said speaking to the Chancellor’s Leadership Academy was a special honor because the late Bill Friday also had addressed the group.

“Bill Friday and I were close for many years and we only had one spat. That was when (former ECU chancellor) Leo Jenkins started pushing for the medical school here. I came out strongly in favor of the idea and I lost many friends over that. Bill Friday opposed it. Years later he told me, ‘you were right and I was wrong.’”

That admission by Friday, who led the University of North Carolina system for 30 years, was itself a sign of leadership, Lee said. “A good leader will not be afraid of working with people you disagree with if you see that it’s in your mutual interest.”

Lee, 78, also served as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development from 1977 to 1981. He said that was when he learned the wisdom of not waiting until all debate has been settled about an important issue before taking action.

“We had this idea then for a Mountains to the Sea Trail. Many of us thought that was a good idea but most said it was just too daunting to get anything done. But I thought I should do what I could, and we made some progress.”

Today, a little over half of the scenic walking trail is complete along its route from Clingman’s Dome in far western North Carolina to the Outer Banks. “As a leader you need to have a vision,” Lee told the faculty and staff members at the luncheon. In conclusion, he asked them, “What are you willing to do to help people?”

The Chancellor’s Leadership Academy ( is an intensive professional development experience for faculty and staff who are ready to expand their capacity for leadership in higher education and who are committed to enhancing their contribution to the university.

A large crowd gathered to hear remarks by Howard Lee on Wednesday.