Who Was That Man?

In December I had the privilege of attending a Roast and Toast for Bill Goolsby, who retired Dec. 31 as dean of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Business to return to teaching. I found myself musing on what motivates a large number of people to turn out in honor of a man on such an occasion. Often in our age of celebrity CEOs with the ability to use media to create a public persona, we forget that charisma and a powerful public personality are not the foremost traits for leadership. In fact, leading authors and researchers such as Jim Collins (author of “Good to Great”) and Bill George (former CEO of Medtronic) argue just the opposite — that a forceful personality and need to be seen as in charge are detrimental to effective leadership.

During the last eight and a half years, while Bill was dean, a lot has been accomplished at the College of Business. The business school has an amazing new physical home at the Reynolds Center for Business and Economic Advancement. This state-of-the-art facility was designed and built specifically for educating business people, and as such, it will serve the business school for a long time to come. While not as visible, other major accomplishments during Bill’s tenure include an executive MBA program and a cooperative distance-learning program with other schools and universities.

These kinds of innovations touch thousands of lives directly and many more indirectly. Getting programs such as these off the ground requires a lot of cooperative effort from a wide range of people, a lot of time that is not spent in the day to day of teaching students and, of course, a lot of money. Yet, we do not see Bill’s name in thousands of Google hits or attached to myriad press releases. Given the emphasis on visibility that so many corporate and educational leaders have, how do we reconcile amazing outcomes with an almost anonymous leadership profile?

I talked with a number of Bill’s colleagues about his tenure as dean. They had a lot to say, of course, but most of what I heard boiled down into three main points:

Bill hires people into positions that they can do and gets out of the way to let them do it. He does not desert them and is there for backup when needed, but he is not a micromanager.

Bill is not afraid to wade into discussions and activities that are not his home court. No one would confuse Bill with being an extroverted salesman, but he was instrumental in driving the fund raising needed for the Reynolds Center.

Everyone here knows what was needed to keep the place running. While he was not absent from the daily operations of politics, Bill set the department up to not require his regular intervention, which left him free to enroll others in his visions for new programs and make them a reality.

These are not the themes you hear from people working for celebrity CEOs. In fact, it’s generally quite the opposite. If anything, research has shown that the best overall performers shun the spotlight, preferring to wield quiet influence rather than charismatic power. There are times when marshaling the troops and beating the drums to get everyone moving are important skills for leaders. But that form of leadership is generally not shown to be sustainable.

After eight and a half years, Bill Goolsby has stepped down to return to teaching. His visionary projects and programs are in place, and he has officially let go the mantle of leadership. However, true to form, Bill demonstrated one of the traits that made his tenure successful when I spoke to him about this article. He was uncomfortable with the idea of an article centered on him but felt that it was a good idea if it was good press for the university and the College of Business.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, February 14, 2005.