In retirement, Bowman helps students learn to lead
Whenever Al Bowman had time for leisure reading during his Illinois State presidency, he’d usually pick up a book from the same unexpected genre—leaders who failed.
Turning those stories into a map of leadership landmines to avoid, Bowman successfully led Illinois State for nearly a decade before retiring in 2013, seemingly at the peak of his popularity.
For Bowman, leadership wasn’t just his job—it was a riddle to solve. Now, he’s sharing his unique perspective with the next generation of leaders through an Honors class for Presidential Scholars called Leadership in Action. Through case studies and VIP guest speakers, Bowman’s 17 students last semester learned about what makes an effective leader in business or higher education.
“Most people in leadership positions are largely ineffective,” Bowman told STATEside. “Most organizations are led by those who are scarred with a number of flaws. But organizations that have effective leadership have a clear competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
The class, which Bowman teaches every fall, is one of the many ways the former president is keeping busy in retirement. He exercises two hours a day five times a week, and plays a lot of golf when it’s warm enough. He’s an avid reader and plans to take his gourmet cooking hobby to the next level with an intensive online class this year.
Recently, Bowman was tapped to serve on Governor Bruce Rauner’s transition team. As part of Rauner’s education group, Bowman and other experts will map out challenges facing Illinois in preschools, K-12 schools, higher education, and workforce development, and then make recommendations to Rauner.
“I really just wanted to help,” Bowman said. “I jumped at the chance to do it, in part because very few people really understand higher ed, and that’s especially true in Springfield.”
Back on campus, Bowman is sharing his expertise directly with students. The eight-week Honors seminar class (IDS 202.77) is part of the core curriculum for Presidential Scholars, the most prestigious and competitive scholarship program available to new freshmen.
Bowman finds some common threads among effective leaders—character and authenticity, as well as technical competence and an understanding of where an industry is headed.
“The University has been very good to me and my family over the last 35 years. This is another way to give something back and hopefully add some value,” Bowman said.
Dillon Maher, a sophomore public relations major from McLean, is a Presidential Scholar in Bowman’s class. By looking at failed business leadership, such as the decline of smart phone pioneer BlackBerry, Maher says he’s learned the importance of communication between executives and followers. Guest speakers have included former Wichita State President Don Beggs, among other executives.
“I loved this class. I looked forward to it every week,” Maher said. “I felt I would have done the world a service if I had live-tweeted everything that Dr. Bowman said in class.”
Bowman was never president while Maher was a student, so Maher wasn’t sure what to expect of him as a professor. (Before serving as president, Bowman was a faculty member and later chair of the Department of Communication and Sciences and Disorders, where he still occasionally teaches.)
“One thing I did not expect was his sense of humor,” Maher said. “He cracked jokes with us and made all of us feel really comfortable in the classroom. It’s easy to tell that even though he spent a number of years as president of our university, he never was disconnected from the students.”
Kristen Faucon, a senior agriculture communication major from Athens, Illinois, said the Presidential Scholars program has allowed her many unique opportunities and helped her build connections inside and outside the University. Bowman’s class—with its focus on soft skills such as authenticity and emotional intelligence—is a great addition to the program, said Faucon.
“After taking this course, I have a better understanding of leadership in the professional world and how some of my experiences as a leader of student organizations will translate when I enter the workforce,” she said. “I feel more prepared to lead teams and be an effective leader in the future.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.