Charlie Britton, headmaster at McDonogh School, builds a culture of trust

Charlie Britton, headmaster at McDonogh School, builds a culture of trust
Charlie Britton is the headmaster at the McDonogh School. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The McDonogh School has ranked among The Baltimore Sun’s Top Workplaces for each of the six years the survey has been conducted.

If a top workplace starts with top-notch leadership, look no further than Headmaster Charlie Britton, who is often mentioned as the driving force behind McDonogh’s consistently high ranking.


“Charlie is authentic, child-focused, playful, receptive, trustworthy, involved, and aware,” said one employee.

Another noted his “excellent vision for the future of independent school education” and called Britton “a person of high integrity and strong values.”

Britton, who plans to retire at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, took a moment from teaching the next generation to answer The Baltimore Sun’s questions about leadership:

What is a leader’s role in building a place people want to work?

The goal of leadership is to build a workplace where people trust one another, where everyone is tied to the organization's mission and wholeheartedly believes in it, and where people feel empowered to do their very best. Employees want to work at a place where they feel valued, where they can be authentic, where they feel safe, where it is highly relational, and where coming to work can be a joyful experience. If you can meet these goals, a great culture can be built.

What is your influence on your organization’s culture?

The reality is that leaders set the tone for the organization. I have learned that it all comes down to building strong relationships, having a profound sense of purpose, being the first one to laugh at yourself, demonstrating joy and showing people how much you love your work. My role is to be highly supportive of the community and foster a work environment that is welcoming, joyful, and innovative. Retaining and hiring talented teachers and staff who care deeply about making the McDonogh experience the best it can be for our students is my greatest responsibility.

How do you decide when to be hands-on and when to delegate?

When I began as a head of school 16 years ago, I might have had a different response to this question. Yet what I have learned as a leader is that incredibly relational organizations are usually very healthy. They thrive. I am hyper-focused on making sure that we have the very best relationships that we can. When I believe that I need to closely manage a situation is usually when I think working relationships among members of our community are on fragile ground.

What’s the hardest lesson about leadership you’ve learned?

What I have learned in leadership is that so much of the culture you work to create comes from the tone you set. A predictable and thoughtful tone helps employees know where they stand. A harsh tone may make people work harder in the short term, but over time, employees will be resentful and joyless. You can't sustain a highly productive workplace by being harsh. When I began as a senior administrator years ago, I remember getting angry at an employee in front of his colleagues. I knew immediately that I was wrong. Even after I apologized, I knew I would never enjoy a strong working relationship with that person. The trust was gone. I should have handled the situation in an entirely different way.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in leadership?

My advice to someone beginning his or her leadership experience is to be authentic. Don't try to be someone else. Be who you are and be open about your own weaknesses. Highly functional and supportive employees will view this as a strength. I think great leaders have the confidence to show people that they don't have all of the answers and that they need bright and dedicated colleagues to help the organization succeed. I have found that employees will work harder to support your leadership and the organization's mission when they witness your honesty and humility.