Elements of leadership

A new faculty-focused program develops leaders and strengthens the leadership community.

composite of three portraits

Justin Walensky, Elizabeth Malm-Buatsi and Shannon Breske

Feb. 22, 2022
Contact: Marcus Wilkins, wilkinsm@missouri.edu

Justin Walensky is a self-described fundamental chemist whose research focuses mainly on “the planets” at the bottom of the periodic table — Uranium, Neptunium, Plutonium. When he was named chair of the University of Missouri Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Science, it came naturally to investigate leadership in terms of its elements.

Fortunately, Walensky’s promotion in Fall 2021 coincided with his enrollment in the Provost Leadership Program (PLP) — a Mizzou-specific training designed to develop academic leaders who will guide MU into the future.

“Learning my leadership personality, getting to know other chairs, breaking down department culture and understanding the perspective of Mizzou leaders has been invaluable,” Walensky said. “Making the transition to department chair while participating in the program has definitely changed how I have approached the leadership process.”

Henry Jemison — a senior chemistry major from Conway, Arkansas, and a mentee of Walensky’s — already valued his professor’s natural leadership style. In his eyes, the PLP has magnified those strengths.

“To me, one of the key aspects of a good leader is the ability to effectively listen to those who follow you,” says Jemison. “Some might think a leader is the loudest person in the room, but I believe it’s the one who understands their audience. Dr. Walensky is a great listener, and he uses that to help guide his students.”

By example

Led by Alexandra Socarides, associate provost, and Carrie Nicholson, senior director in the Office of the Provost, the PLP was adapted from UM System’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) and focuses on four broad topics: leadership style, inclusive leadership, building teams and making change. The duo started with the tenets of the LDP — especially aspects that alumni of the program found most valuable — then tailored it for Mizzou.

The PLP’s inaugural class began in September 2021 and comprises a cohort of 20 participants, including Walensky, who represent nearly every campus academic unit. The course consists of seven half-day sessions from September to March.

“This intentional program encourages potential leaders to ask themselves, ‘Could I take on a leadership position? What would my strengths and weaknesses be?’” Socarides said. “Another outcome is that leaders continue to use this network and learn from each other. It strengthens the community of leadership at Mizzou.”

Leaders leading leaders

The program also includes a series of informal “leadership lunches” featuring guests including University of Missouri President Mun Choi, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Jim Spain, and Vice Chancellor and Chief Business Officer Rhonda Gibler.

“Learning how other leaders on campus get things done — with strengths and personalities completely different from your own — has been really exciting,” said Elizabeth Malm-Buatsi, an assistant professor of pediatric urology in the MU School of Medicine and PLP participant. “Hearing them articulate questions you should ask yourself, or considerations before you tackle a project, has been phenomenal.”

Organizers have already begun incorporating input from the cohort in a continuous effort to improve the PLP and accentuate its most effective aspects. It’s a commitment to self-evaluation that reflects the course itself.

“There are so many fantastic leaders at MU and so many resources that you don’t have to ‘know all the things,’” Nicholson said. “Leaders are stronger when they are able to admit what they don’t know and rely on others by tapping into this network of great people.”

Shannon Breske, an assistant teaching professor in the Trulaske College of Business and PLP participant, echoed that sentiment and urged other potential leaders to dive in.

“We are all busy, and the idea of adding something else to your plate might not seem manageable, but the PLP is worth your time and energy,” Breske said. “The participants’ and program coordinators' insight, guidance and support are worth it.”

The PLP has just begun accepting applications for the 2022–23 program. Socarides and Nicholson are hopeful the program will expand and that deans will continue to encourage colleagues and leadership candidates to enroll. Visit the PLP webpage for more information about the program and a link to the application form.

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