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Mares: Quiet Leadership

When Kevin Riell, the long time activities director at Champlain Valley Union H.S. died recently, that academic community lost some of its glue. His colleagues lost a friend and a person of quiet inspiration.

No subject was dearer to Kevin than increasing student participation in all school activities. When CVU built a football team, what excited Kevin wasn’t the prospect of winning in another sport, but reaching a cohort of kids who had no other athletic outlet.

A sign of his statewide influence was that more than 600 family members, teachers, administrators, parents and students attended a memorial celebration in the gym. There was even an honor guard of athletic directors from schools across Vermont.

As a fellow teacher, I used to run with Kevin and a few others after school once or twice a week. On our four mile loop, after we’d complained about our aches and pains, and talked about golf and Kevin’s beloved New York Giants football team, we’d turn to school affairs. He never got upset about school issues or policies. The only thing that riled him up was when parents, teachers and students could not – or would not - work together to solve a problem. And Kevin always put kids first.
Phil Coleman, another of those after-school runners, who now lives in Missouri describes Kevin's style as "Midwest nice… he would take what I said at face value, without the edge of skepticism or doubt that Easterners sometimes have. He was always appreciative of the ideas of others.”
Kevin's style always reminded me of one of my engineer-father’s favorite expressions: "The steam that toots the whistle never turns a wheel," meaning that Kevin and people like him don’t clamor to be in the wheel house; instead, they’re down in the engine room, making sure the ship has fire in the boiler. They don't need stroking, medals or cheers because their rewards are internal. Their compasses point to the true north of the good of the organization. They’re the gray cement that holds the flashy red individual bricks together.

Business schools and book store shelves are full of theories about leadership, how to command your employees. They peddle the notion that organizations only function with inspiring, empowering leaders in charge. But the Kevins of the world are equally important - doing their work efficiently, quietly, and keeping their organizations and institutions going without ego or complaint.

The 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham is known for advocating the greatest good for the greatest number – a sentiment that for me just about sums up the character and passion of Kevin Riell.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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