In Leadership, Service to Others Matters Most

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In Leadership, Service to Others Matters Most

This story originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Jag magazine.


An invitation into the office of Head of Upper School Rishi Raghunathan P ’27 ‘30 is akin to entering an archeological site filled with rare antiquities from 80s pop culture. Original Star Wars action figures are entombed in the appropriate Darth Vader plastic carrying case and multitudes of other objects d’art pay homage to the memorable heroes and villains from Terminator, Robocop, Indiana Jones, and Ghostbusters. What makes all of these collectibles truly special are the people and stories behind each one. And Raghunathan can gleefully recall them all. From former colleagues and students he has worked with through the years, the memorabilia represents the relationships he has built and fostered over a lifetime of searching for what he likes to call his people.

Originally from Chennai, India, Raghunathan’s family moved to Florida when he was twelve. While his initial introduction to the U.S. was mostly positive, things later changed when he entered the 9th grade in Arizona. It was during that time, when he was struggling to make friends in a new city, that Raghunathan felt the incredible power of a single person reaching out. “An act of kindness and inclusion opened up my world,” he remembers. “It changed my life. It taught me the importance of putting kindness first and being inclusive of the kid who sits alone. They might need a lifeline. After I found my place of belonging, I learned to take risks. I had to make choices that put me in charge of my own destiny.”

Years later, as an adult, Raghunathan’s strong sense of autonomy would lead him to a life-changing career move. On September 11, 2001, he was a flight attendant and had worked Flight 92 several times when he was based in San Francisco. Feeling the full frightening weight of what could have been, combined with an undeniable rise in Islamophobia, he began looking for a different professional path. His wife, Neelie, was a French teacher at University School of Milwaukee, prekindergarten through 12th grade school, and provided him with an introduction into the world of independent education. It was a place where he, a self-described journeyman who had moved all around the country until that point, was able to find his people.

Raghunathan ended up staying for 19 years, rising through the ranks as a teacher and administrator. Before coming to Wellington, he was the dean of students for eight years at USM, supporting and leading a robust student life program. Drawing on his international relations degree from the University of Cincinnati, Raghunathan has taught a wide range of courses in the history department. He currently serves on the ISACS Board of Trustees and is the chair of the ISACS Equity and Justice Committee. He is also a faculty member at the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi), the only program of its kind in the country in which teachers learn the pedagogy of leadership. He is an expert in teaching teachers how to teach leadership.

“Wellington has an academic and co- curricular model that puts students at the center of the process,” Head of School Dr. Jeff Terwin said, “and Mr. Raghunathan’s ability to provide thoughtful leadership training will be an outstanding addition to our approach. Throughout his career in education, Mr. Raghunathan has demonstrated a strong commitment to fostering positive learning environments in which both teachers and students thrive.”

Playful by nature, Raghunathan becomes more contemplative when discussing the importance of education in creating effective young leaders. He has found that the key component to leadership is heart. “To make change, you have to win people’s hearts,” he explains. “You have to cultivate relationships. Vulnerability is the first step. My ego is not important. It’s my service to others that really matters.”

Empathy is another essential trait of a great leader and one that Raghunathan credits parenthood for. His daughter, Annika ‘27, and son, Simon ‘30, have taught him the importance of every child having a blanket, a source of comfort and safety, in their life. He considers every teacher to be the blanket, shepherding and caring for their students as they grow into adulthood.

The person Raghunathan most counts on for love, support, and wisdom is his wife, Neelie. Whenever he doubts himself, she always tells him he can. She is the rock of their family. For fun, they take hikes with the kids, share a great meal, and ride bikes. Raghunathan is also an avid photographer who likes to capture the sublime beauty of everyday life and people. He has an eye for capturing stunning moments of humanity and the exquisite in the familiar.

Creating an engaging learning experience for children, Raghunathan believes, is just as crucial as building character. Finding authentic connections, focusing on the process instead of content, and knowing that every student’s journey looks different, are intrinsic to a thriving school community; all themes underscoring the life of a Jag.

“At Wellington, we know who we are and where we are going,” Raghunathan says when asked what drew him to a new school in a new state. “There’s so much excitement in that self-awareness and shared purpose. It’s also the excitement of rolling up my sleeves and building something really great. I feel invigorated by the possibilities.”

Raghunathan has found his people.