7 Questions with John Derry
Name: Dr. John Derry
Current title: VP for Academic Affairs; President Emeritus
Current organisation: Dallas Christian College; Hope International University
Dr. John Derry has over 40 years of experience in Christian higher education and service on the boards of numerous faith-based non-profit organizations. Upon his retirement, he was named President Emeritus of Hope International University in California where he had served for sixteen years as president. He also has served as president at Dallas Christian College in Texas and vice-president at Milligan University in Tennessee. He holds a B.A. and M.A in ministry and theology from Lincoln Christian University, M.S. in educational foundations from Western Illinois University, and Ed.D. in higher education administration from East Tennessee State University. He currently is assisting the ABHE as a board governance coach and Dallas Christian College as interim VP for Academic Affairs.
1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?
Maintaining balance between work, family, and personal well-being. Leaders are often faced with pressing priorities and it is easy to become so focused on the needs of the institution that you neglect your own personal mental and spiritual health.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I have always started early and worked late, beginning the day with a time of exercise and Bible reading/devotion. My personality is such that I am very organized and structured with my time and am a compulsive list-maker with a list of tasks for each day of the week as well as short and long term goals. A typical day on campus would be from 7:00 a.m. to 6: 00 p.m. As president, I had a very open door approach to leadership and always made time for impromptu conversations while still maintaining a schedule of appointments and meetings throughout the day. Weekends were often spent in visiting donors, churches, etc.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Leaders must be problem solvers and they need to surround themselves with the best team possible to ensure they identify the best solutions. There is always going to be another crisis, of varying degrees, to confront. To think you can know every functional area so well that you don't need input from those directly involved is foolish. Wise leaders are able to hire highly competent people who are a good fit with the institution and the other members of the leadership team.
4. What's one book apart from the Bible that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
There are two books that use the number "five" in describing effective leaders, but they do so from different perspectives. Jim Collins' book "Good to Great" has been a major influence. In it he describes a level five leader and how uncommon it is to find someone with all traits. After reading the book, I was able to see those qualities in the president who hired me for my first administrative position at a Christian College. He became a mentor to me and what I admired most was his humility and gracious spirit. He recently passed away and I was honored to preside at his memorial service. The second book is by John Maxwell, "Five Levels of Leadership." Those at the fifth level invest in raising up new leaders who are capable of assuming positions of influence. My mentor did that as well.
5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?
The success of a Christian school depends on those who have the most direct contact with students. You can have impressive facilities, a large endowment, and outstanding programs, but unless you have men and women with a heart for Christian education, your institution will not realize its potential. Great teachers are found by seeking individuals who have that passion. To keep them, you must let them know you value what they do and remind them regularly how important they are to the school. One of the most critical dynamics is good communication by listening to their concerns and doing as much as possible to address the needs they have that will help them be more effective in the classroom.
6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
One of the challenges we face in Christian schools is the perception that everyone is always going to conduct themselves with proper behavior, language, and attitudes. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Christian schools are just like the church and are made up of people who make mistakes. Creating an environment that establishes appropriate standards and policies but allows for repentance and restoration is not as easy as some think. Leaders often find themselves in a "no-win" situation because they must make decisions where all the facts may not be known. That's why there must be a high degree of trust in the leadership. If that is lacking because leaders don't operate with integrity, there won't be a healthy organizational culture.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a Christian school leader so far?
Looking back on my career as a Christian school leader, I am reminded of many incidents that were quite stressful. Those include financial crises, accidental deaths of students, moral failures among faculty or staff, conflict between colleagues, student discipline issues, disgruntled parents, and the list goes on. In spite of those difficult times, there is no doubt God opened every door for me to serve each institution and he continues to do so today. I am convinced He uses your past and current experience to prepare you for the next place of service.