How Shafer Leadership Academy inspired Boys and Girls Clubs CEO to embrace his offbeat style and the approaches of others.
Jason Newman’s rise to leadership was a slow burn that started far from kids and thousands of miles from Muncie, where he serves as CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Lived experiences and professional development through Shafer Leadership Academy has led Newman to embrace his unconventional, direct style that inspired him to flip the organizational chart to put the kids at the top.
Newman grew up in New York City, the eldest son of a successful lawyer and doctor. But outward appearances masked functional alcoholism and abuse, which resulted in divorce. Newman was the only student at his private high school who had previously attended a public school. The experience taught him that even among the rich, people draw lines and attach labels.
That’s what happens when you don’t go to class.
After high school, Newman enrolled in the “best college he could get into, not the best college for him,” he said, and he flunked out after one semester. “That’s what happens when you don’t go to class,” he laughed.
Newman worked his way through college No. 2 in Brooklyn. After two years on the dean’s list, Newman transferred to New York University on a partial scholarship and worked at a financial consulting firm to fund his journalism degree.
The firm offered him “a lot of money” to stay on after college and soon asked him for a three-year commitment. However, a friend had quit her job, citing she wasn’t happy: “It had never occurred to me your work could bring you happiness, so it got me thinking that I could find a more fulfilling role.”
Newman turned down the offer.
He spent the next few years working in grocery and retail stores before a stint as a private detective: “It’s much less glamours than it sounds. I mostly called people to conduct background checks, but I grew up reading Perry Mason novels, so I thought it would be exciting.”
Newman’s father was on his third marriage at the time, and his wife suggested Newman substitute teach at the preschool his brother attended in Brooklyn Heights. Newman said, “yes,” and fell in love with the work. He was their first call when pregnancies and sickness pulled teachers from the classroom, and he later applied for a full-time position.
“The job went to a candidate with a master’s degree and 20-plus years of experience, which made sense,” he said. “But it was the first time I felt disappointed I didn’t get a job, and it gnawed at me.”
You either trust the people I hire, or you don’t.
Newman continued to sub at the school, and a new director hired him on full time. When some parents expressed they didn’t feel comfortable with a male teacher, the director said: “Sure, you can switch rooms, but it’ll need to be at a different school. You either trust the people I hire, or you don’t.”
That conviction stuck with him: “People expect preschool teachers to be a middle-aged woman or Mr. Rodgers, and I was neither,” said Newman, who is bearded and brawny. “Later, when I was director of a Boys and Girls Club in Philadelphia, I hired a young man who wore women’s clothing and painted his nails. Some parents refused to let him interact with their kids, and I showed those parents the door.”
At the NYC preschool, Newman had become a popular teacher, mostly because of his hands-on, relevant lessons that often incorporated music. A jazz hobbyist, Newman presented about his infusion of musical instruments into lessons during a conference, and the session caught the attention of Philadelphia’s Boys and Girls Clubs’ CEO. The executive invited Newman to apply for a director of early childhood position, and Newman submitted his materials.
“At the preschool back in New York, I was working as a teacher, ran our summer programs, and took shifts as a musician and bartender to make ends meet,” he said. “I loved it, but I was excited for a new opportunity, where I could grow professionally and impact more kids.”
Wish granted. Newman shifted from the private preschool to a club that served children ages 6 months through 18 in a poor, working-class neighborhood with “old fashioned, Polish roots,” he said. Parents fussed when he hired Black teachers, male teachers, and gay teachers, but Newman’s commitment to a diverse staff changed perceptions.
He learned some of his greatest lessons about leadership and perceptions of success during this time.
“College was pushed on everyone, but for many of our kids, that message came across as, ‘go to college so you can be better and smarter than your dad,’ Newman said. “I always loved learning, but I never loved school, so I connect with and understand people who resist college.”
In October 2017, Newman’s own path shifted when he accepted the CEO position in Muncie. Dozens of invitations to meet leaders join councils greeted him. Newman recalls his team insisted he attend Shafer Leadership Academy’s Nonprofit Executives Group, a network of area nonprofit leaders who gather for professional development and collaboration. The experience introduced him to all that Shafer offers — from one-on-one coaching and lunchtime workshops to tailored programs and retreats.
“I struggled my first year here, trying to be the person with all the answers because that who a leader is, or so I thought,” Newman said. “It wasn’t until I enrolled in SLA programs and encouraged my staff to do the same that we really came together and started to grow and improve as a staff — together.”
He’s built a team of people who “don’t look like me, talk like me or think like me,” he said.
“I process while I talk, but when a CEO is spit-balling ideas in meetings, it can come across as orders,” Newman said. “We needed to learn each other’s personalities and work styles for people around me to say, ‘here’s what you didn’t think about” rather than just saying ‘yes’ to appease the boss.”
If we don’t fail, it means we aren’t trying hard enough.
Newman also processes quickly, but he’s learned to create pause for those around him who need time to reflect. He’s worked hard to create an environment where everyone feels heard, valued and open to fail: “If we don’t fail, it means we aren’t trying hard enough,” he added. Overall, Newman said he strives to be the least important person in the room.
“I hold a lot of responsibility, but I have the least amount of direct work with our kids and families — the reason we are here. For this reason, we flipped the organizational chart to have the kids at the top of the chart, followed by teachers, then directors, until it flows down to me. I should be the roots of the organization, growing the leadership upward.”
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Muncie is his life, Newman said, and he is focused on expanding the clubs’ reach. By 2025, he plans to grow the number of kids served daily from 175 to 500 and expand evening hours from two to five days a week. To accomplish these and other bold goals, Newman said he and his team will need Shafer Leadership to foster their leadership potential and to fuel productive collaborations.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Muncie is a Shafer Leadership Academy member. Learn more at www.bgcmuncie.org