March 2, 2007
Arkansas State University Jonesboro

Welcome to March! The balmy days we experienced in the latter part of February have made me eagerly anticipate the arrival of spring. To see the first evidence of flowers and foliage beginning to emerge makes me realize that area lakes will soon be a place to spend a late afternoon becoming reacquainted with my rods and reels and the peculiarities of Arkansas bass. I have found a kindred spirit in David Mosesso, the friendly publisher of The Sun and an avid outdoorsman. He and I are both as busy as can be, but we are planning an early trip to test our fishing skills after a cold winter.

In this report, I want to discuss with you some thoughts about leadership and change that I have had following my first three-and-a-half months on campus.

Taking bold steps
As I have continued my visits to colleges and departments, and spent more time in Little Rock on legislative issues, these activities have caused me to reflect on my personal philosophy of leadership and my organizational ethos. Essentially, I believe in the concept of servant leadership, which bypasses the traditional corporate model of top-down decision making in favor of an approach that emphasizes "collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power." (see Wikipedia, "Servant Leadership.") Certainly, this approach is not original. However, I think servant leadership principles I have absorbed from others and have tried to practice and refine throughout my career are probably widely shared and practiced by many of you. On this campus, I see the results of many generations of outstanding leaders, who have collectively transformed this campus from three buildings at the end of a muddy road in 1911, to the modern doctoral/research/teaching/service university it is today. I want to continue that kind of leadership.

I believe that persons in positions of influence in an organization (and that includes all faculty, staff and administrators of this university) need to use good judgment and restraint in exercising their authority, while at the same time feeling empowered to serve others in the organization. We must especially feel empowered to serve our students, whose academic lives, at the very least, are entrusted to us. Certainly, we need to respect the organizational structure and policies our Board of Trustees has adopted for us, but at the same time we must be bold enough to take calculated risks in pursuing our goals of service and progress and enhancing our academic mission.

A good example of this type of leadership occurred a few days ago when one of our academic deans sent a note to me and to several others in the administrative chain. He described seizing an opportunity to collaborate with another university in an endeavor obviously designed to increase grant availability for our university, provide additional opportunities for our students, and generate positive economic activity for our state. He needed to make a decision, had little time for consultation with others, and chose his course of action. He did the right thing, and the university will benefit from his decisiveness. I am sure that our university will be better for his having been proactive. But even if his calculated risk in seizing the moment had appeared questionable in hindsight, we should nevertheless applaud his initiative. We want employees at every level, in academic and non-academic positions, to feel free to assist and serve students, co-workers, colleagues, and visitors to our campus, without fear of adverse consequences.

More resources and better information are needed
As I have visited faculty and others across campus, and solicited opinions on how we in administration can help them do their jobs better, a recurring theme I have heard was a sense of frustration about not having the resources and information they need to do their jobs in an optimum manner. Likewise, our administrators often feel handicapped in overseeing their areas of responsibility because of excessive state or federal mandates that limit administrative flexibility and entrepreneurial behavior, or in some cases, because of perceived lack of cooperation from other areas on campus. These problems are not limited to public entities, but often afflict private organizations that have grown, matured, and become bureaucratic.

Good leaders and other stakeholders in such organizations must often work hard to reestablish and maintain vibrancy, responsiveness, and practicality. These challenges have sometimes been compounded by technological advances, such as instant electronic communication through e-mail and text messaging, and by implementation of enterprise-wide software systems. These advances assist us in many ways but diminish the personal touch and often require an organization to conform its work practices to the system, rather than the system being configured to adapt to existing effective practices that work well in that organization.

Seeking clear vision and effective strategies
I ask for your help in making sure that we do all that we can do to alleviate these problems as we strive to achieve the mission and goals of our campus. Over the next few weeks, while 2007-08 budgets are considered and the Legislature continues its work, we will look for ways to increase our international enrollment, come together on changes to the Faculty Handbook, begin a capital campaign, and plan to celebrate our centennial. As these activities proceed, I intend to see if there are ways we can tweak or change our organizational structure and administrative practices to better serve our internal and external constituents. We have important business ahead, and it is exciting to contemplate the good things that can happen if we can truly refine, through good communication and our shared governance processes, a clear vision and effective strategies to reach our overarching goals. Thank you for your input and assistance as we proceed.

In the meantime, you also are welcome to send along your tips for catching big Arkansas bass!


Robert L. Potts

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