Leading With the Positive: The Joan Riehm Way

If you have been in any way involved in public life in Louisville, and didn’t just move here in the last few years, you know something about Joan Riehm.

What I know about her came back to me recently.

My first race for the Jefferson County Board of Education was in 2006.  One morning early in my campaign, Joan agreed to meet with me. I very much wanted to get her input and advice.


She asked me what my campaign message would be about JCPS.

I began to tell her about areas that needed improvement. I droned on about the great challenges, and where the school system was coming up short.

I could tell her demeanor changed. I thought she was going to come across the table at me.

In a few quick words, she demanded that the tone must be positive; that our Jefferson County school system was something to value, to champion and, as a public official, to nurture. She knew exactly the importance of mixing the work to improve with regular reminders of the blessing of our countywide public system and its successes.

I worried about the doubt I might have given her about my ability to lead, but I realized it was good to be jolted into a new attitude.

Her admonishment is instructive today.  We have so much to get excited about but we sure seem determined to lead with the negative.

It matters a lot how we characterize our public institutions, and, in particular, our public school system – JCPS. That’s not easy – the negative and controversial are getting the headlines.

It took decades to build our public school system, and there are challenges, of course. But, with a big public cheering section, I believe those challenges will be more easily met.

For those of you who don’t know much about Joan, she retired as Deputy Mayor for Jerry Abramson. She was known for her work in building regional cooperation among surrounding counties, and was a key player behind city-county merger in 2002.  She died too young in 2008 of pancreatic cancer.

Here are excerpts from a Business First remembrance, “Those who knew Riehm will remember her many accomplishments as well as how she achieved them. She always had a smile on her face, and she never resorted to tearing down others to make her point.

Riehm was in public service for the right reason — to make things better, not to stroke her ego. Of her many talents, her ability to communicate and rally people around an idea were probably her strongest.

Those who knew Riehm will remember her many accomplishments as well as how she achieved them.

Joan Riehm has left an indelible mark on this community. We are a better place because she lived and worked here.”

She led with the positive. Worth remembering.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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2 Responses to Leading With the Positive: The Joan Riehm Way

  1. Chuck says:

    I agree Debbie. Unfortunately the negative grasps headlines and water cooler talk more than the positive. There is much to celebrate with JCPS. It is not perfect, but I’d rather springboard from accomplishments than the mire of a negative element. Let’s address our weaknesses alongside of praising the positives. Both perspectives should be shared in the journey to be the best urban school district in America.

  2. Cynthia Knapek says:

    Joan had a great impact on my leadership style too… sometimes when in a tough situation I find myself asking “what would Joan do” 🙂

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