Rosie Phillips Bingham, PhD, honed her leadership skills as one of 12 siblings. She arranged family meals, got her younger brothers and sisters to school and even broke up their fights.
"The way I got to be in charge was that I had a more gentle quality, which made it easier for my siblings to cooperate with me," says Bingham. "I think it's the same thing I have now, gentle and firm."
As vice president for student affairs at the University of Memphis-and the first woman and first person of color to hold the position-Bingham still leads with a "velvet glove."
"As a woman, I believe I have permission to be more caring than a man immediately does," she says. "But I think there is also an expectation that I won't be as firm or as definite as I can be, and [when I am], I think that's a surprise."
A delicate balance while wielding power is key, says Bingham, who feels she's least effective when she's dictating orders. For example, Bingham spent a year trying to implement her department's mission-helping the University of Memphis' 21,000 students learn through engagement and involvement-when she realized that not everyone agreed on the definition of learning. Bingham had to step back and spend half a day collaborating on a definition before she felt everyone was on board with her vision.
"I wasn't being as effective as I thought it was...because I had not listened carefully enough," she says.
During that discussion, Bingham took care to listen to her staff, but she also stood her ground and demanded measurable learning outcomes, which she feels are the future of higher education.
Bingham credits mentors she's had throughout her career with helping her learn how to accept support and aid others.
Some such support came from an unlikely source. While a graduate student at The Ohio State University, she attended a book signing by the poet Maya Angelou. At the time, Bingham, a first-generation college student, was paralyzed by a fear of failure as she struggled to finish her dissertation. She described her woes to Angelou.
"I don't know why she listened to me whine and sob about this, but she just autographed a book and wrote in it, "Go on, PhD!" as if I was already a PhD," says Bingham. "I got unstuck, went on and wrote the dissertation."
Just as Angelou frequently touches on the power of speaking up in her novels and poems, Bingham stresses that women must make their voices heard.
"As a woman, when I walk in the room, I am not instantly given credit or credibility. I have to establish that and re-establish it all the time," she says.
Like many working women, Bingham strives to balance work and family. From her predecessor, Donald K. Carson, PhD, she adopted the practice of dropping everything to talk to her son. During an early '90s student sit-in of the university's president's office, Bingham kept in touch with her son even as she spoke with the president and negotiated with students.
"My son graduated from college last year and I still take his calls," she says.
Bingham strives to support her colleagues much as she does her son. She believes in never setting people up to fail by giving them a job for which they aren't ready.
"One of the absolute essentials for leadership is excellent interpersonal skills, whether one walks with kings and queens or garbage workers and the homeless," she says.