32. Scott Pulsipher: Disruptive Leadership in Higher Education

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Scott Pulsipher, my guest on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, is the President of Western Governors University, a fully online institution of higher learning established 20 years ago by 19 U. S. governors.

Scott has traveled a fascinating career path to his present position; a serial disruptor who has jumped from one leadership role to the next, often acquiring needed expertise on the job, growing in his roles and scaling successive learning curves.

I asked him how being the President—essentially CEO—of the University is different than he expected. Of course he is “responsible for all aspects of the university.” The design and delivery of course offerings, the students and their outcomes, financial operations and viability; WGU is a nonprofit organization.

He talks about leadership. “A leader shouldn't underestimate the amount of time they spend specifically on motivating and inspiring the people that work at the institution you lead….We do all this to change the lives of individuals and families. I have nearly 5000 people who believe that same thing…they want it to be about changing the lives of others. What I underestimated is how important it is for me to inspire those people to continue to keep their focus on why we do what we do, even if it’s some of the more mundane tasks. Answering calls in the student support center is a very challenging job; how do you correlate that to ‘hey, I’m influencing the life of that one person.’ I think about the practices and the policies that we want to develop to make sure that we as an institution continue to attract those who want to make a difference in the world. That we recognize the value that they add as much as the importance of serving our students. That we cannot do anything for our students if we do not serve our people really well.”

This resonated with me; I hope it will with you. We talk a lot these days about purposeful work and, in that context, leadership is ultimately about helping people become their best selves while doing something that they believe is a positive force in the world. It usually involves serving other people.

Sometimes we characterize leadership as a responsibility to make something happen. We go into it thinking “I’ve got to keep the trains running,” and then hopefully we realize, “I’ve got to make sure I’m motivating people to keep the trains running and then they’ll run.”

Scott says, “As a leader you should never underestimate how important it is to be an example to the people you’re leading. And I’d say the reason I underestimated it is because none of the questions I got from the Board and the search committee were about the people. They were more about ‘How do you view the vision of the higher ed sector and what would be your key strategies’ and so it was all about what I would call the operational and strategic aspects of running a university. But they don’t ask a lot of questions about ‘Tell me how you’re leading? Tell me your style, your approach to leading a mass of people?’”

It’s an example of why I believe job recruiting should be done differently than it is—but that is a subject for another day.

To hear more from Scott Pulsipher and about WGU, you can listen in the player below, or subscribe on iTunes.

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Links Mentioned in this Episode:

Favorite Books on Leadership and Disruption from Scott Pulsipher

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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