06/17/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Shifting Our View On Leadership

With the death of Nelson Mandela six months ago, we mourned and continue to mourn the loss of an incredible leader. I could not agree more that there is much to be learned from his leadership and that his will be a legacy unmatched. However, many of the articles that followed his death also cited the lack of leadership we have today. Too often we recognize good leaders only in our rearview mirrors and miss the outstanding leaders that are right in front of us.

In this age when it feels like we are more often mourning the loss of a generation of good leaders than witnessing strong leadership in the here and now, my daily experience tells a different story. In the inner-city Catholic schools throughout the city of Chicago, I see people taking the helm and doing what's necessary so our students succeed. We live in a city full of leadership potential. The secret to unlocking that potential lies in creating strong support systems that foster emerging leaders.

Over the last ten years, Big Shoulders identified a need to build our base of leaders working to ensure that the learning opportunities provided by the 90 schools we support remain accessible to low-income children. If you think of schools like orchestras, every single musician, conductor, theater manager, instrument and audience member plays a role in a strong performance. At the Big Shoulders Fund we've learned that growing strong leaders is as much about strengthening the environment around them as it is about building their individual strengths. We do this by investing in academic programs and professional development, providing teams of volunteers to schools to improve their facilities, connecting schools with grants for technology and mentors and tutors for children, and much more. All of this is done to ensure that children can continue to plug into schools that serve as important charging stations in their communities, and that those stations are modern and effective.

Here's an example of what's possible when an orchestra is playing in tune. The Big Shoulders Fund has two volunteer boards with more than 300 members who represent sectors such as business, education, law, finance, and technology. These groups have grown 454% since their founding. They bring their diverse expertise to the table to fundraise for scholarships and volunteer as mentors, school board members, tutors, teachers, and more. In February, more than 150 volunteers pitched in on a Saturday at Queen of the Universe School in Chicago's West Lawn neighborhood. They helped catalog books in the school library, paint hallways, and organize classroom materials. In April, more than more than 125 volunteers showed up to paint, clean, and landscape and organize St. Ethelreda School in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood. They have become true advocates of our schools and have led our efforts to grow awareness among Chicago's professional community about the good work of inner-city Catholic schools.

In addition to leaders like these that are supporting schools from outside of the traditional school structure, the Big Shoulders Fund Leadership Development Program recruits and supports teacher leaders who have decided to further their development within the school walls as school leaders. We are investing in their continuing education in return for asking them to commit themselves to working in low-income communities. We need school leaders that not only believe in the potential of each and every student, but also know what it takes to prepare the future workforce of Chicago. This year the Leadership Development Program supports 30 principals and ten teacher leaders, collectively serving nearly 8,500 students.

We know we are on the right track because since we started focusing on these programs, our number of volunteers has increased from 150 to more than 3,000 this past year. Participation in corporate service days grew 150% from last year to this year alone. Investment in the Leadership Development Program has increased from $36,000 five years ago to $260,000 budgeted for this year. Under the leadership of our Co-Chairmen John A. Canning, James J. O'Connor, and Monsignor Kenneth J. Velo, Big Shoulders has partnered with Chicago's civic community - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - to raise millions of dollars for academic programs, scholarships, and operational improvements at our schools. This year we are on track to distribute $16M to the schools. And perhaps most telling, enrollment in our schools has increased for four straight years showing that parents too are invested in Big Shoulders Fund schools. When everyone's on the same page, working towards the same great performance, our students are the ones who reap the benefits.

Engaging leaders from all sectors and backgrounds is an important component to include when reimagining the future of inner-city Catholic schools. I see true leadership at work in Big Shoulders Fund schools on a daily basis, both from within the school walls and from those working on their behalf. I invite you to get involved. Visit our website to learn more about leading a service day at a school, serving as a mentor, or joining one of our volunteer boards.