This is Part 2 of an ongoing series, Leadership in Different Ways: African-American Leadership at North Lake College, in honor of Black History Month.
Ten years ago, Eddie Tealer sat in an office at one of America’s biggest banks. He was recognized by superiors as a promising talent and a spreadsheet master, capable not just of mining data but of learning from it, too. The job, he explains, “came with perks: free food all day, free parking, free dry cleaning…”
But, beneath all the free stuff, something did not sit right. “One day I started feeling, I’m empty. I’m not fulfilled, not helping others. My values did not match the corporation’s values.” Bothered by the company’s lack of ethics, Dr. Tealer applied for a low-ranking finance job at the Dallas County Community College District. “I just wanted to rebuild and start my career from the bottom.” At the bank, he says, “they thought, ‘You’re crazy! You’re going places!’ But it was an opportunity for me to do something good.”
Dr. Tealer knew that opportunity was more important than a chance to make more money. “It wasn’t even two weeks,” he reflects, before “I knew [the DCCCD] was where I needed to be. I was so humbled, I was so grateful.” From that start in fall 2008, he has become North Lake College’s Vice President of Business Services, responsible for the college’s finances.
Lessons in leadership
Dr. Tealer’s escape from the banking industry also inspired him to think hard about leadership qualities. He began to study leadership to understand just what had frustrated him about the management practices he saw. “What did I find lacking in the leadership in corporate America?” Another inspiration was that, as he says, “When I came up through corporate America, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me.”
So he pursued and completed a Ph.D. in leadership, reading “a whole library” of books and writing a dissertation on community college administration. For all that studying, Dr. Tealer’s own leadership style is most strongly influenced by a simple trait: humility. “I’m one to like to work behind the scenes,” he says. “I like to take the ‘I’ out and put the ‘we’ in—if I’m recognized as being somewhat decent at my job, it’s because of my team.”
Dr. Tealer says there’s no bigger reward than seeing NLC students walk the stage at graduation. “I get really emotional,” he says. “I always look at the parents’ eyes.” Graduation symbolizes the payoff of years of hard work, not just for students, but for their families too. Dr. Tealer knows that personally.
Investing in a new generation
When he was a child, young Eddie Tealer’s paternal grandfather worked in a factory, and had a second job as a plumber, fixing pipes around the neighborhood for friends and acquaintances. “My grandfather always got up at 4:30,” a daily habit his grandson has inherited, “and always wore a crisp white shirt and crisp khakis.” He charged his neighbors for the plumbing and handyman work, enough that they would think they were paying him fairly, but not enough to be truly profitable.
Eddie’s grandfather never spent a dollar he earned outside the factory. “I asked, why don’t you spend that money, the plumbing money? He told me, ‘This money is to invest in our future.’ When I got to go to college, he called me, and he said, ‘You remember that money, that I said was to invest in our future?’” That money was to help pay for Dr. Tealer’s first college degree.
So, he says, “When I see a child walk across the stage, I know from experience that fulfillment.” And he knows, too, that “I don’t really have time for things that don’t matter.” That’s why his conscience steered him out of the corporate world (and it might be why his office at North Lake is so sparsely decorated). Helping students, helping families, improving lives: these are things that matter. Thinking back to his grandfather’s gift, Dr. Tealer reflects, “I have big shoes to fill.”
On the surface, managing a college’s finances is not the most glamorous of jobs. But look at it another way. The money is to invest in our future.