Since early 2013, there have been nearly a dozen lead changes at Kentucky’s colleges and universities, with another two presidential inaugurations slated for 2015. Those new to the Commonwealth higher education helm include Mike Benson with Eastern Kentucky University, Raymond Burse from Kentucky State University, and Barton Darrell of Kentucky Wesleyan College, each of whom demonstrates the keys to leadership at this level.
“There are thousands of definitions of leadership,” says Dr. Charles Stoner, a leadership expert and professor at Bradley University in Illinois. Stoner has been working with leaders and learning about leadership for more than 30 years. He has authored nearly a dozen books and helped found the Leadership Development Center at Bradley. “You have one of two things: One is what leaders really have to do is unleash the potential of people. The second thing is that leaders have to inspire,” Stoner says. “That is kind of neat. To inspire is to literally ‘breathe life into,’ and leaders do just that. They breathe life into the people and the groups and teams around them.”
The ability for leaders to move and work, and convince others to move and work, is a byproduct, for the most part, of what Stoner identifies as leadership keys.
The first key is communication. “Part of communication is being able to listen and to build dialogue,” Stoner says. He explains that communication is not a simple conversation about the weather. Real communicators need to be able to take tough situations and build a meaningful and extensive dialogue around those situations in order to find a solution to potential problems.
The second key is conflict resolution. The most prevailing style, Stoner says, is to avoid conflict. “Being able to understand which situations to back away from, which situations to move on, how to bring together and get some resolution and movement, that’s a kind of finesse that leaders have to have,” he says.
The third key is vision. “Leaders today have to provide meaningful, real visions for the future,” Stoner says. “In that way, they capture the minds and the hearts of the people and help them move in that direction.”
The fourth key is knowing how to handle change. Stoner says that change includes excellent communication skills and being able to effectively impart a future vision, but it is also a lot about knowing people—why they have difficulties with change, why they resist, and what leaders can do to deal with it.
Above all, leadership has to be active. “I think we have to realize that leadership is a relationship activity at its core. People who build relationships and develop those contacts and in the process gain trust—I think those people are probably going to have the most success as leaders,” Stoner says.
That is the kind of success that Benson, Burse and Darrell are working for.
Leading the charge for the Colonels
Mike Benson leans back in his chair. He takes a sip of his water and straightens his tie. On his lapel, a Colonels pin catches the light. On the wall above his desk, a portrait of Harry Truman smiles down. On the corner of his desk is an iPad full of pictures of his children and wife.
Benson, a native of Texas and the youngest of six kids, came to EKU after presidential appointments at Snow College and Southern Utah University. “It all started after I finished my doctorate in Middle Eastern History. I couldn’t find a teaching job, so I went to work with my cousin roofing houses.” Benson looks at his hands and laughs.
“My first job out of grad school was spending eight hours on a roof.”
Manual labor is worthy labor, Benson says, and he tells about how he worked as a janitor, a carpenter and a salesman during his growing-up years. “My parents always taught us that nothing was beneath our dignity. If we had work, we should be grateful for that,” he says.
Out of the blue, he says, the winds of change started blowing. A friend of his called and mentioned the open president position at EKU. “All I knew about EKU was Roy Kidd and what he had done with the football program,” Benson admits. “In February of 2013, I came out here sight unseen. I walked around campus and looked at the buildings. I went to the Center for the Arts. It just so happened that Wynton Marsalis was in concert, and I bought a ticket and sat on the second row.”
Benson, a longtime jazz fan, went home and told his wife they might want to check out this opportunity. “I am a firm believer that, in this arc of life, we get in these comfort zones and can just put it on autopilot. But real growth and real transformative experiences come when you get pushed out of that zone,” he says.
It was a push that affected not only Benson and his family, but also EKU. Benson turns 50 this year, making him a young president but one who feels he can look at his experiences through the years and extrapolate what he needs from each. “My philosophy is that I try to be as judicious and measured as possible. I don’t try to rush headlong into a situation and make decisions hastily. After a year, I saw what we had, what I believed we needed moving forward,” says Benson, who assumed the EKU presidency in August 2013. “The board, particularly the chair, Craig Turner, reallocated a portion of the budget to give me the latitude when I got here to make some decisions relative to salaries, new faculty lines, some infrastructure.”
Benson thinks often of his heroes. Harry Truman left office with a 26 percent approval rating but made huge differences that people didn’t understand at the time. He thinks of Abraham Lincoln, who knew the power of words and how to use them effectively to make a difference in this world.
Then, he thinks about changes and how change is difficult for most people to handle, even changes that are positive in the long run. “I try to be sensitive,” he says.
“At the end of the day, I have this sign on my desk that says, ‘The buck stops here.’ The chief executive is looked to as the final arbiter,” Benson says. “When an issue comes to my office, chances are, [others] have tried to resolve it at many different levels. I never make a decision in a vacuum. I try to get as much information as I can, but at the end of the day, like my hero Truman said, a president has to make a lot of decisions. It you make a bad one, hopefully you can make a good one to rectify the bad one.”
Recently, Benson made a list of accomplishments at EKU. The list was good, he says. He also made another, more daunting list of what is yet to be accomplished. He thinks about what he tells the students: “Life is 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you respond. All you can worry about are the things you have control over. You can’t control how someone is going to treat you or how they are going to react in certain circumstances, but you can control what you do,” he says. “The best thing that we have done is tried to breathe a new sense of excitement and a can-do attitude. I heard from a lot of folks we can’t do things because we’ve never done that. We aren’t going to argue for our limitations. We are going to argue for what is possible. We are going to continue to forge ahead. I hope that we have a new sense of optimism that we can accomplish anything we want.”
Reining the Thorobreds in a good direction
Just a short distance from the state Capitol, Kentucky State University holds great promise in a cluster of buildings sitting atop a slight rise in the terrain. Groundskeepers clear stray leaves; students bundle up against the cold. In Raymond Burse’s office, leadership books are in a stack at the corner of his desk.
“Every time I go to a meeting, I bring back something interesting for my team,” Burse says, referring to the books. Then he laughs. It is a sound that fills the room and rolls out into the hall. The books, Five Steps for Better Leadership, are from the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, South Carolina, where Burse has been a board member for nine years. He has three years to go in a new six-year term.
Burse is the youngest of 13 children, born to a mother who went to school as far as seventh grade and a father who went to school as far as third grade. Life was different in the 1960s, especially in Hopkinsville. “It was a very Southern town, very segregated. I went to the county school the first year of desegregation,” Burse says. “It was interesting. It was testy. There were conflicts. It was a challenging time, but one that you had to respond to.”
His response was getting into education. “I took classes nobody thought I should be taking. I read books nobody thought I should be reading,” Burse remembers. “You faced challenge, pretty much off the bat. We were a close-knit family, and it made a difference. Both my parents believed in education, and they were convinced that what could be transformative in their children’s lives was education.”
Burse’s parents were right. He became a Rhodes Scholar at Centre College in Danville, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978 before returning to Kentucky that same year. He served on the old Council on Higher Education, where he became more involved in KSU’s future. “While I was on the council, my thing was, how can we enhance Kentucky State, make it more attractive. I started out as a lone vocal advocate for KSU. I eventually got the entire council over time to agree,” Burse says, then chuckles
again as he tells the story about being asked to serve his first stint as KSU’s president, a position he held from 1982 to 1989.
“I was probably naïve enough that I didn’t think anything was impossible. I am adventuresome enough that looking at new ideas or looking at things differently doesn’t frighten me,” Burse admits.
At the end of his term, Burse returned to practicing law, this time with a corporate firm. He retired in 2012. His retirement lasted almost two years.
“I made the mistake of going to dinner with seven of my friends in late June. Three of them were KSU grads. I told them I wasn’t coming back,” Burse says. “Then they played the guilt card. They said, ‘You too good to go back over there?’ I knew I had to do something about that.”
Last July, following his predecessor’s retirement, Burse returned to KSU as interim president, adamant that he would serve only 12 months. “What I found and what I concluded was that this was not a 12-month job,” he says. “If you are going to do it, might as well do it right. Get in or get out.”
Burse was in. All in. But he says he is a little wiser this time around. “When you’re being innovative and creative, and you want things to move, you do things to facilitate where you want to go. Part of what I do now is more selling of an idea than I did. I am more methodical about the process and not as quick to pull the trigger,” he says, and explains he has learned the art of compromise and balance.
“In terms of being able to get the work done, it takes everybody. It takes everybody together accepting what the goal is, where we need to go, and are working toward that. That is probably the most difficult part of being a university president,” he says.
One of Burse’s first acts as president was giving back to the university $90,000 of his annual salary. Those funds were used to increase to $10.25 an hour the pay of 24 of KSU’s 600 employees. Burse was concerned with providing “living wages” and engaging all members of his team, even the lowest-paid members. It is a philosophy that permeates his daily leadership walk.
“If you empower people and get them engaged, they will stay engaged,” Burse says. “If you tell someone, ‘do this, do this, do this,’ they will do it, but what is their commitment to the engagement in the long term? Compromise is the art of living and doing. It is not a negative. It is to build the relationship and to make it grow. You do that for the greater good of what it is you want to build.”
The Wesleyan Way
Barton Darrell walks his campus every day. He knows the names of the faculty, the staff, the students. He knows their hometowns and their hobbies. He goes to their games, and he cheers them on. He considers every waking moment to be the moment when he is called to do his job.
Darrell hails from east Texas. A teaching position for his father at Kentucky Wesleyan College secured the family’s new home in the Bluegrass State. Darrell graduated from KWC, as did his siblings, and went on to practice law in Bowling Green. When the opportunity to accept a vice presidency at his alma mater arose in 2013, Darrell took a chance. “Somebody asked me after I came last year if it was a professional risk to leave a great law firm and a practice where I was a partner and all that,” Darrell says. “I said the bigger risk is never allowing yourself to find out what else you can do and how else you can make a difference.”
Last autumn, that “what else you can do” turned into Darrell becoming Kentucky Wesleyan College’s 34th president. The desire to effect change has always been present in Darrell’s life. “I think [my siblings and I] were just raised to care about other people and to try to live our lives to have an impact and to matter. So if that’s leadership, then that’s leadership,” Darrell says.
Education, he says, is a part of him. And so is living and teaching The Wesleyan Way. The Wesleyan Way is a type of reciprocal support system. Darrell encourages the entire body of KWC to support one another. The soccer team will root for the cheerleaders. The cheerleaders will pray for the campus ministry of the Kavanaugh Scholars. The Kavanaugh Scholars will be interested in hearing about a science experiment. The science guys will take up space in the stands for the basketball game.
“The Wesleyan Way is the foundation of everything we do here. It means a little something different to everybody. It’s important for two reasons: It makes ‘us’ better, and it is the right thing to do in a family.”
The principles are deeply ingrained at KWC and supported at every level. “I tell the students all the time: If you have a week where everything is going good, then that is your worst week,” he says. “Leadership is helping somebody else move their life from one spot to another.”
Moving lives, Darrell says, involves self-confidence that comes from facing and overcoming obstacles. “Only then do you know how you will respond to a tough day or to a failure. Leadership results from self-confidence.”
Helping students achieve self-confidence means being open to different programs. Darrell shares an example of students who approached him about starting a paintball team as a club sport. “They had done their research, and I said, ‘Hey, you come up with a plan and you present it.’ That is a great example of doing and not watching. Everything is most successful when it is student tried. The beauty of a school our size is that we aren’t confined. We never close a door on any program. If it is economically feasible, we are going to look at it, whether it is academics or co-curricular.”
Darrell checks his calendar to make sure he is not missing a group or a game. He is involved and invested in his students, faculty and staff because he takes the time to be conscious of the fact that all people want to matter and all people do matter.
“Here is what I know,” he says before he heads out the door to meet a group of students. “If I see tears of joy from somebody who has just accomplished something that they’ve dreamed of, this is something in my heart where I know true leadership best. They can tell me things, write me summaries of programs, give me stats, but the best evidence is a tear of joy at their accomplishment. When I see that, I know something worked.”
Darrell walks down the street. He turns when he hears his name. It is a student. Darrell waves back and calls the student by name. To him, that is someone who matters. A student who learns and lives The Wesleyan Way.