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Defining the gift of leadership

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were two of Great Britain’s most influential statesman of the 19th century. While both achieved great things, their approach to dealing with people was very different. This is illustrated by a story that has been told of a young woman who dined with these famous men on consecutive nights.

When she was asked about her impression of them, she said, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.” Disraeli’s style is one that we as leaders can all learn. Valuing people and appreciating their worth is what builds loyalty and trust.

Dr. Rod Risley has that gift of listening and leadership perspective. Risley is executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, the largest honor society in higher education, which happens to be located in Jackson. Risley is a native of Kansas and earned his associate degree from San Jacinto College and baccalaureate degree from Sam Houston State University in Texas. After graduation, he accepted a position with Phi Theta Kappa, which had been founded in 1918 in Canton. Over his 36-year career with the organization, he has served in a variety of roles, and in 1985, he became its second executive director when he took over from his predecessor, Margaret Mosal.

During his tenure, the organization has grown from five employees to over 80, from 500 chapters to over 1,300, and now inducts over 135,000 students annually. During this time, Risley also went on to earn his MBA from Millsaps and Ph.D. from Mississippi State University.

Risley’s humble leadership style has allowed him to align himself with other people who share a passion and vision for positively impacting the lives of students. Risley shared, “I know my strengths and weaknesses, and from early on I have surrounded myself with very talented people who share our mission.”

He noted that he learned from his mentor and predecessor, Margaret Mosal, about the importance of valuing and affirming people. As a leader, one of the most important roles that Risley plays is to be an environmental scanner. He usually logs over 250,000 miles a year traveling the world to keep a perspective on the rapidly evolving education system. This has allowed Phi Theta Kappa to continue to innovate and grow.

We discussed how important it is to never become complacent just because you may be in the lead.

Risley noted, “I remind our team that we will one day likely have more competition, and so we need to daily strive to improve what we do and offer more value to our members.”

Because of his tenure and expertise, Risley and Phi Theta Theta Kappa are playing an important role in the changes that are taking place in education.

For example, he recently served on the 21st Century National Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, which issued a landmark report, “Reclaiming the American Dream.”

Phi Theta Kappa’s world headquarters is located in the heart of Jackson. It is a beautiful facility, and we are fortunate that the organization chose to stay here as they could have easily moved to Washington, D.C., or another major city. Mississippians should be proud to have this organization based in our state, and our community college system is a direct beneficiary of their presence.

While our country’s education system faces some steep challenges to regain our status as a world leader in education, I am encouraged and excited to see the positive impact that Risley and the Phi Theta Kappa organization are having on addressing these problems.


Up Close With Dr. Rod Risley

Title: Executive director, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society

First Job: “I worked in my father’s grocery store business.”

Favorite Books: Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom); Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)

Proudest Moment as Leader: “It was a proud moment for our organization when the White House recently called and asked us to identify students to participate in the first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges.”


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About Martin Willoughby

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