The Primitive Podcast: Jill Arensdorf

Posted by Buffy the Bison | March 29, 2021

Dr. Jill Arensdorf

There are some folks whose careers carry them into leadership.

While others, like the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fort Hays State University, Jill Arensdorf, were drawn to the study of leadership in college. 

And have committed to learning more about the nuances and intricacies of leadership and leadership theory ever since. 

Listen now as Kade explores leadership from a scholarly perspective, only on The Primitive Podcast.

Connect with the folks behind the episode:Jill Arensdorf and Kade Wilcox

Kade Wilcox: Hey guys, Kade here. Welcome to The Primitive Podcast. Thanks for joining today's episode. We had Jill Arensdorf. She's the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. I've had the privilege of getting to know Jill a little bit, and she has a background in leadership studies. And as you can tell on this episode, she's really well-read on leadership. And not just well-read, but she's been a leader, an active leader, for a long time. And so I really appreciated her insights in today's episode. Thank you for joining The Primitive Podcast. We've loved creating this content for you, and we appreciate you coming along for the ride.

Jill Arensdorf: I have always found that a solid, good leadership process involves the ability to read the situation and the context and see the bigger picture. And Ron Heifetz calls it, "getting on the balcony and being able to see people on the dance floor", so to speak. And so if you can get off the dance floor at times and be on the balcony and see what's going on around you and read into that situation a bit, I think you're going to be so much more highly effective in your leadership process.

Kade Wilcox: Jill, thanks for joining The Primitive Podcast. Really appreciate you taking the time, you know, to be with us. So thank you so much.

Jill Arensdorf: You're absolutely welcome, Kade. Thank you for asking me. I look forward to our conversation today.

Kade Wilcox: Thank you. So for those who don't know Jill and Fort Hays State and all that, all that great stuff, tell us a bit about your background and the work that you do.


About Jill Arensdorf

Jill Arensdorf: Sure. Thank you, Kade. So again, my name is Jill Arensdorf. I'm currently serving as the provost and vice president for academic affairs here at Fort Hays State University, which is in Hays, Kansas. Northwest Kansas. We're located in Ellis County and Fort Hays State is a regional state university. And so we have a population of about 15,000 students, about a third of those are on campus. And we have a little bit greater than a third of those in our online programs. And then we also have a large population of students that are in our programs in China. Prior to me being in this role, I was the chair of the leadership studies department here at Fort Hays State University. So my background and passion are leadership and working with others in leadership roles and capacities. And so I think that's kind of the background of our conversation today.

I grew up in Northwest Kansas in Hill City. So I've been in a rural era area for most of my life. I have strong roots in agriculture, which is where I really got my leadership start. I was heavily involved in 4-H and FFA throughout my high school, even up through my high school, but even into my collegiate years, and learned that you could study leadership in college. And so my master's degree was in agricultural education and leadership from Texas A and M University.

Kade Wilcox: I did not know that.

Jill Arensdorf: Yeah. Yeah.

And then I started my first job after my master's degree was in 4-H youth extension work. And so I was helping develop young people and their leadership skills before moving to the university, now 19 years ago, to start teaching leadership at Fort Hays.

Kade Wilcox: That's cool. So do you remember back, like, when you started thinking about leadership and kind of became fascinated with it? Because of the path you've taken, as you mentioned, you've kind of been involved with leadership for a long time. Even back to, you know, 4-H and some of that stuff. So do you recall when leadership became this fascination for you?

Jill Arensdorf: I do. I remember exactly when that was. So my senior year in my undergrad degree, I got to co-teach a leadership concepts course at Kansas State University, which is where I got my undergraduate degree. And as a course co-lead or a facilitator in the course, I remember distinctly thinking, "Wow, I can really, I can do this for a living. I see that there's so much scholarly work out there around leadership and leadership theories, and there's so much work yet to be done." I understood how important collegiate professors were in my experience and I wanted to be that mentor to other people, eventually. And so that was my first realization that of course, I'd been learning about leadership my whole life, but that was my first realization that you could actually teach it and you could learn it in a way that that would possibly look like an interesting career for me. And I didn't really ever look back on that. I mean, I didn't look back on that being my dream, but at that time I was really setting my dream up, my passion up, and my dream for my career. And it was kind of this serendipitous moment in the leadership house at K-State.


The Study of Leadership

Kade Wilcox: That's awesome. You've studied leadership all these years and obviously, you've, I assume, you've read a tremendous amount about leadership given your academic background and even your role now. How have you tried to balance, you know, kind of learning about leadership and applying leadership? And so over the years, like, what's your approach been to not just absorbing a bunch of great content, which is really important and really powerful, but then also the application of what you're learning?

Jill Arensdorf: Yeah. That so important, Kade. In fact, probably more important to me is the application of, not only for my students but also for myself. And so anytime I'm reading a new, reading about a new concept, or even reviewing an old concept on leadership theory, or I'm at a conference, I am constantly thinking about, not only, okay, how does this work in my class? (And I'm not teaching right now as much.) But more importantly than how do I teach others this? How do I do this myself? Because if I'm not able to enact and adopt these leadership skills and capabilities as I deploy my work, then they're no good for anybody else to be learning. And so I've always said, and I've always tried to practice, I've got to be practicing and acting these skills, and behaviors, and attitudes, and this mindset, or I'm a hypocrite in the classroom when I'm working with students. And the application piece then for them becomes more real because I'm kind of doing it alongside them rather than telling them how to do it.

Kade Wilcox: That's good. So it's a perfect segue into this next question, which is: how do you see your role as a leader? You kind of hear from different leaders what they think leadership means and what that looks for their specific leadership. So when you think of your leadership and your organization for your team, and maybe it's for your students or whatever the case is, what are the real core aspects or elements of how you would define your leadership?


Process vs Person

Jill Arensdorf: Yeah, so I think the keyword there is leadership versus leader. Because I see leadership as a process and I see it as a process, Kade, that involves more than just any leader. So obviously we'll have leaders that are leading a process, right? Or are part of a process. However, I see the leadership process being highly collaborative. I see it as being highly interactive and involving multiple stakeholders. So, while there may be a leader, the other people in the leadership process are as, or maybe even more, important as you get buy-in and make progress. The other component, I think, that's really important in leadership, for me at least, is those relationships between leaders and followers, or stakeholders, need to be based on ethics, and also need to be working toward a change or a common goal or something like that. And so that's a really important part of the leadership processes is not doing something just to do it. It's doing something to improve a process or to improve a product or improve the relationship. And so I've always seen leadership as collaborative, but as I was studying it in a more scholarly way, saw that I really see it as a process versus a person or a position.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. So, collaborative, I really appreciate that. As you've studied it from a scholarly perspective, have you seen in the great leaders that you've researched, read about, studied, whatever, have you seen common threads? Like, they were all consistently collaborative? Or they were all consistently, you know, crafting and communicating vision? Or they were all the hardest working or whatever? Like, have you seen these, like commonalities amongst great leaders that you admire and that you've researched that you've studied and you've observed throughout your research of leadership?


Leadership and Context

Jill Arensdorf: Yeah. I would say there are a couple of things, Kade, that I've seen as commonalities, and it may be because I have been drawn to these people because of their skills. So this may not, this is probably not (hindsight) highly scientific.

Kade Wilcox: No, that's fine. This is a non-scientific podcast, so you're in good company.

Jill Arensdorf: So I think the collaborative nature that I've read about leaders, and I've observed so many people that may not even call themselves leaders, but those people that are what I would call part of a leadership process, more often than not they're collaborative and they're willing to listen. I also see people being humble when they don't know. And, and that is involving, you know, asking questions and involving others in the process. I also see people that I've seen as doing this right, are willing to learn along the way. And so thinking about how they might deploy themselves differently in a different situation; reading the context of the situation. I think really solid leaders that I've observed over my life are able to really look at the context of a situation and say, " You know what? I may deploy myself this way in this situation, but I need to change a little bit when I'm working with this person or this set of people because my messaging needs to be different, or my approach needs to be different.

And so I have always found that a really solid, good leadership process involves the ability to read the situation and the context and see the bigger picture. You know, Ron Heifetz calls it, "getting on the balcony and being able to see people on the dance floor", so to speak, in his adaptive leadership work. And so if you can get off the dance floor at times and beyond the balcony and see what's going on around you and read into that situation a bit, I think you're going to be so much more highly effective in your leadership process.


Getting Out of the Trenches and Disincentivizing Failure

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. It reminds me of an author named Jocko Willink. He has leadership tactics books and he's ex-Marine. And he talks about detaching, you know? Like you have to detach from time to time to really understand, like you just said, context. And so, yeah, it's really, really good. I wrote, I wrote that book down. That's, that's really good. I...

Jill Arensdorf: ...And Kade, I'm not always good at that. I'm sorry to interrupt you. I'm not, I'm not always good at that because we get in our work, right? And I'm sure you can relate to this. We get in our work, and we're so passionate about it, and we want to make things happen, and we want to show progress. And then there'll be days or weeks on end, and I think I have not even gotten on the balcony for a while to think about what is going on here and how can we step back. And so again, I am certainly a work in progress when it comes to leadership. I maybe have read lots of books and lots of articles and studied them, but I am nowhere near perfect. And this is an example where even just this morning, I was thinking about, kind of thinking about some thoughts in preparation for our conversation, I thought, "Ooh, I need to get out of the trenches for a while and get on the balcony and think about what's next."

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, I love that analogy. That's really good. Thanks for sharing all that. Yeah, man, some really good stuff there. I love that analogy of standing on the balcony and looking down at the dance floor and seeing it from that vantage point. First, just being busy on the dance floor, you know? That's really good despite the fact that I don't know how to dance. That one really resonates with me. That's good. How have you treated failure throughout your leadership journey? First of all, I love how you keep referring to leadership as a leadership process. It just sounds like a really intentional way of saying, "No, no, no. I've learned a lot and I'm becoming a leader." Right? Instead of I am a leader and almost insinuating you have it together. So I love that idea. But how have you, throughout your leadership journey or leadership process, treated failure?

Jill Arensdorf: Well, I'm pretty hard on myself. And so I don't like to fail. Not because I don't think it's important, but, you know, one of the probable strengths and weaknesses, of me, is that I'm a perfectionist. And so when I fail I am really hard on myself. And so that's something that I, as I say, I'm a work in progress. It's something I'm constantly working on in myself because I know how it impacts how I interact with others and deploy myself with other people. I think failure is part of that process and a part of that learning. And so I think what's key for me in leadership roles that I've been in, and part of the leadership process is to not disincentivize failure by helping people learn through failure rather than being a severe consequence for it.

And I had a supervisor really early on in my career at Fort Hays. He'd empowered me to plan this event in the summer and I'd planned it; I'd worked really hard. And there was just not, there was not the response to this event that we thought there might be. And so we had to cancel the event and I was really...I felt like a failure. I felt like I hadn't done my job. I had felt like I hadn't done enough work and enough marketing and that supervisor actually ended up still paying me for that work. And that meant a lot to me because he recognized, "Okay, this was a failure, but let's learn from it. And I'm still gonna recognize you for the hard work that you did and let's learn from it and move on. "And so I've always remembered that example. I mean, it was, it was minor in the grand scheme of things, but I've always remembered that as a way to pitch failure as a learning opportunity versus failure. And as just a lose-lose situation.

Kade Wilcox: That's good. I love how you talk about not disincentivizing failure. It's powerful. That's a powerful concept because when you punish it, as you mentioned, you really impact your team's ability to take risks and to be willing to do hard things in order to grow, even at the risk of failure. So that's really good. You talk about being really hard on yourself, and surely a lot of folks really struggle with that. So over the years, like, what have you done to try to kind of speak some wisdom in even to yourself about being overly hard? You know? And not managing your expectations, even of yourself, maybe very effectively?

Jill Arensdorf: I, again, I have not perfected this, Kade, but, you know, I have, I have mentors that I work a lot of these things through. And they're not necessarily mentors that have the same positions as me. They're just people in my life that, that, that have poured energy and effort into me. And I do the same with them, I think. And so we have really candid conversations about what does this perfectionism look like and how might be, if you will, to move past it? I also I have been fortunate to get to participate in a number of the Kansas Leadership Center programs. I don't know if you're familiar with the Kansas Leadership Center, but one of the things that, one of their key components is, managing yourself. And as part of that, knowing your strengths, your vulnerabilities, and your triggers, and that mindset has really helped me because I think a lot of times, if I can just name that upfront, then I'm less focused on the perfection part of the process and more on people part of the process.

And then also a component that I learned through KLC is experimenting beyond your comfort zone. And so that idea of experimenting kind of takes that perfectionism out of mind for me. So if I'm experimenting, I'm not fully committing, right? So if I fail, so to speak, I'm just failing at an experiment versus, you know, failing everyone around me. Which I know is not the case, but that mindset shift really helps me. So it's really kind of how I approach problems and how I approach just getting some perspective going into a situation.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. I love that idea of experimentation, and I can see how that would shift the mindset to maybe create more grace for yourself, as things work or don't work. So that's really good. How do you approach your own personal growth?


Personal and Professional Growth

Jill Arensdorf: Well, that's really important to me. I read a lot, probably not compared to other people, but I'm always reading something. And I have found that especially in this role, I'm teaching a class right now, Kade. And that has really energized me and helped me develop personally because I'm engaging with other students again, and material and engaging in the learning process. I seek out professional development opportunities often because I will never have it all figured out. And so I think that's an important part of my growth as a professional, not only as a provost but just as a professional in leadership studies; keeping engaged with colleagues and scholars across the globe. And then just, I mean, learning from everyone that I'm around. I mean, you and I have not known each other very long, but taking every opportunity to visit with someone new, to learn from them about something new and, and evolving myself in our collective work in this world is an important part of my journey as a professional, and in my personal journey as well.

Kade Wilcox: So you're, like, really hardworking. You're always busy. You have a lot of irons in the fire. You're leading a lot of people. You have a lot of responsibilities. What are those triggers, if you don't mind me asking, that indicate to you that you haven't been focused on personal growth? That you've gotten so into, you know, so into the weeds or (not even into the weeds in a negative sense) but you're just, you're just getting the work done. Like what for you are those triggers that go, "You know what? I need to detach from some of this and kind of press into my own growth for the good of those that I'm leading." Like, what are those triggers for you? Like, how do you know when you need to kind of create more space for that stuff?

Jill Arensdorf: I feel it in my gut. A gut feeling is real. It's very real. And so I feel it in my gut. I also have incredible colleagues that will call me out on it. I remember last summer I had a colleague, during a meeting, all of a sudden just say, "Jill, breathe. Just breathe." And, and so I had a colleague that was willing to challenge me in that, and I've been so grateful for that colleague and others that are willing to say, "Okay, take a step back." Because that's important. I've really tried to always be reading something that's not - so I'm always reading two books at a time. I'm always reading one that is maybe more work-related and then I'm always reading one that's just can let my mind wander into a good mystery or a good World War II novel, or something like that. And so that helps me release and get away from the constant churn of my brain. I'm trying to think of other triggers. I also listened to a lot of music. That doesn't trigger me, but that helps me release and pull out of the day-to-day minutia. And, you know, working out and having that regular routine is really important to me. So I think routine, also. If I get out of my routine, that's a trigger as well.

Kade Wilcox: Hmm. That's good. Yeah, it's really helpful. You clearly read a lot, and given your academic background, you know, that's been a part of that journey, I assume. If you were thinking about maybe two or three authors or two or three books that have had really a significant impact on your understanding of leadership - on your own leadership journey - are there any that come to mind that have made a huge impact on you?

Jill Arensdorf: Yeah, there are. So I talked earlier in the podcast about my senior year at Kansas State when I had that epiphany about teaching and, you know, that I was really learning about leadership. There was a book that I read that same semester called Leading with the Soul. It's by two authors, Bolman and Deal. Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. That book was pivotal for me at that time. And I can still, I still, I mean, that's right on my shelf here next to my office, my desk here at the office. So that book was really pivotal for me. Barb Kellerman has also written some books that have been really important for me. I cannot think of the title of this one right now. I can't think of the title of it, but it's one where she really talks a lot about context and situation.

And, Kade, that I mentioned earlier is so important, I think, in how we deploy ourselves in the leadership process. And so that that's a more recent read for me. But that one was really important to me and I cannot think of the name of the title right now. And then I have really engaged in Brene Brown's work, lately, on vulnerability and shame. I think that's important as leaders to be able to be vulnerable and to show that, and I haven't mentioned that as being important to me, but I think that's really important to who I am. Being honest and open with others and being willing to be vulnerable when I don't know, or when I'm overwhelmed, or when I need help. And I find I'm most my authentic self when I am vulnerable and I'm comfortable in that space. And so her work has kind of given me permission to do that, and I think that's important as leaders.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. I have so many questions about vulnerability. Our company has been impacted by Brene Brown, too, mainly through our Chief of Staff, Annie. But have you noticed that you've been in leadership studies and in leadership for 20 years now, have you seen a unique openness in recent years to the idea of being vulnerable in leadership? Like, have you seen shifting in that, and if so, why do you think that's the case?

Jill Arensdorf: I don't know why it's the case, Kade. I think, probably, there's just more work being done and there's more engagement in that work amongst people. I also think that you know, early on really the first hundred years of studying leadership, we're all looking at the leader and really focused on the leader; the power of the leader. And, I think that the scholars are slowly shifting to looking at the other people in the process. And so, as part of that, there are these other things like vulnerability, and attitude, and culture we're realizing are maybe more important than the leader themselves in the position. And so I think it's an evolution of this study of leadership. That's really, what we're seeing right now, right before our eyes. And Brene Brown, of course, as a sociologist and a scholar in that area has really helped lead that effort forward.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. I think there's really something to what you just said. You know, if you think...boy, this is a real oversimplification. I'm sure it's more complex. But, you're right. I mean, if you looked at organizations 50 years ago, it was very kind of leader-driven, you know? Leader focused. And there's a lot more conversation around culture, which, you know, I think, simply, is a collection of individuals. First, an individual to collective individuals, and that collective make up the culture. And so that, I think, I think that's right, I think that that makes a lot of sense what you're saying. Yeah. Well, we could talk about that for a long time. That's good. So my favorite question to ask guests, and my last question for you is, if you could speak to your younger self if you could go back 15, 20 years ago and share with your younger self what you know now, what advice would you give the younger Jill?


“Take Advantage of…”

Jill Arensdorf: So one thing that I feel like I've done well through my years is to take advantage of opportunities when they've been given to me or, or when they've just shown themselves. And so I would say to my young self, "Make sure you do take advantage of all those opportunities." I think I have. But if I could go back, and go into those opportunities with even that mindset of, "I need to take advantage of this to better myself for my journey in this world", I think that would be even better. So keep taking advantage of opportunities.

Um, engage with people as much as possible. And I feel like I've done that, but I think that's always something that I could have done more of starting out as a young person. And realizing, let's go back to a theme you already heard, realizing you don't have to be perfect in everything, or you don't even have to attempt to be perfect at everything, to be successful. I think if that was something that I could have changed about my young self, I would have. Because it's a distinct struggle I have as an adult to not have to seek to be perfect at everything. And so I'm, I'm getting so much better at that, Kafe, but that's probably the number one piece of advice I would give my 13-year-old self.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, that's good. It is interesting that for so many of us our greatest strengths tend to also sometimes be our biggest deficits. And, you know, just what I do know of you, I guarantee you the work you do is really high quality, but the expectation you had placed on yourself leaves very little room for, you know, missteps, or you know, what you perceive to be perfection. So it is interesting that so many of our strengths are oftentimes also the things that are our greatest opportunities for growth.

Jill Arensdorf: So I agree with you there. And I think it's both a blessing in disguise - blessing and a curse, I guess - as we navigate our jobs. But also our personal lives, as well. You know, as much as we want to say we compartmentalize those, we deploy ourselves as human beings every day in our professional and personal lives, very similarly. And I think the more we can focus on something like leadership throughout our entire life versus just in our professional lives, the better off we are. And I feel like I do that relatively well.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. Thank you so much for joining the podcast. This was, this was really rich. Thanks for everything you've shared and for being willing to join us.

Jill Arensdorf: Thank you, Kade.

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