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Taking the Lead

Minette Drumwright, associate professor of advertising and public relations and director of the communication and leadership degree, teaches her students how to lead positive change by example.

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If you ask Minette “Meme” Drumwright which students can become effective leaders, her answer is simple — “all of them.”

In her courses, she spends time dispelling the many myths students have heard about leadership. “There’s the myth that you have to be an extrovert to be a leader, and that’s wrong. There are many wonderful leaders who are introverts. And there’s the myth that you have to be aggressive and possess all the socially constructed characteristics of leadership. A lot of research now is showing that that just doesn’t work well in contemporary organizations. It’s much more effective to be participatory, compassionate and empathetic.”

Drumwright teaches students that leadership is a process. “Anybody can develop the skills to be an effective, ethical leader,” she says.

For more than two decades, Drumwright has taught leadership and ethics courses to undergraduate and graduate students in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Her remarkable ability to foster ethics, responsibility and drive in her students earned her the 2019 President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award, and this year she was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Humble, empathetic, serving and resilient are some of the adjectives former student Rebecca Chen uses to describe Drumwright in her Academy of Distinguished Teachers recommendation letter. “She exemplifies someone that goes above and beyond what she’s asked for,” Chen says. “Her ability to manage everything on her plate and find a way to have time for her students is honestly a superpower.”

Drumwright cultivated her “superpowers” through observing her first role models of effective leaders. Her dad, a theologian and seminary professor, and her mom, a former high school teacher, inspired and encouraged her curiosity and love for learning. Her husband, UT law and government professor H.W. Perry Jr., who is also a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, has been an inspiration to her and a teaching coach. If you wonder what they talk about at the breakfast table on most mornings, it’s teaching — what worked and what didn’t, and what they plan to do differently.

She earned her undergraduate degree from Baylor University concentrating in English and journalism. Graduating during a recession in 1974 nudged her to broaden her career search, and she stumbled upon the world of business. Drumwright also has an MBA from Baylor and a doctorate in business administration from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She landed her first position as an assistant professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School in 1986. Due to a Wall Street trading scandal uncovered the same year — a stock trader was found to be betting on corporate takeovers using inside information and manipulating the stock — the school started a curriculum focused on business ethics of which she was a part. At the time, many resisted this new direction, but she fully embraced it.

“I thought it was such a great opportunity to teach ethics in universities and much needed,” Drumwright says. “Research shows that it’s easy for students to take away the message, ‘you just do whatever it takes to succeed,’ if we’re not proactively preparing them for ethical dilemmas and teaching them how to think through them and address them in ethical and effective ways.”

While at Harvard, she met her future husband, and they eventually decided to move back to their home state after they both found opportunities to teach at UT in 1994. “Everybody said it was true evidence of Texas chauvinism that the Texans found each other, got married and then eventually moved back to Texas,” she said joking.

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Drumwright doesn’t give up easily. In 2016, she and her colleagues were determined to implement the first UT undergraduate degree centered on leadership. For 12 years, they had lobbied for its adoption and garnered an abundance of faculty and student support, but they still needed support from a dean to move the idea forward. When the committee approached the then-new dean of the Moody College of Communication, Jay Bernhardt, with their idea, things began to look up.

“He had studied leadership, so he saw the immense value in the program,” she says. “He immediately embraced it, and then it was approved in record time!”

Drumwright recalls encountering many stumbling blocks on the committee’s journey to establishing the degree program, but she says she never lost faith that they would reach their goal. “I’m really proud that we didn’t give up the fight for the communication and leadership degree. Communication is so integral to all good leadership. It’s just kind of a perfect combo.”

Encouraging students to lead positive change in ethical ways in all parts of their lives — from their household to the world stage — is at the core of the program. So how does she prepare the next generation of leaders and world changers? She starts with two rules in her classrooms.

First, everyone must check their ego at the door. And second, everyone must be willing to take risks. Creating an environment where people feel safe and empowered to speak up is the most crucial aspect of her discussion courses, she says.

“The goal of the class is to create a learning community where people can share their ideas and challenge each other and challenge me, and so we all have to be willing to say things that we’re maybe not completely sure of. And I try to communicate to the students that that’s OK. Every class I leave and think, ‘Could I have said this differently?’ We’re all trying to figure this out together.”

Once students have a better understanding of the process and skills of successful leaders, she encourages them to turn inward to identify their strengths and weaknesses in addition to taking self-assessment tests and gathering feedback from people who know them well. She says witnessing her students blossom into leaders motivates her to come to work every day.

“One of the best parts of being a professor is we get to live vicariously through our students and through their accomplishments,” she says. “It just gives me great joy to see my students thriving and doing important things and leading positive change on campus and beyond.”

Drumwright had the opportunity to join in on her students’ work to lead positive change by being a faculty sponsor of their President’s Award for Global Learning team, which proposed studying the effects of colorism in Ghana. Aligning with her passions of social impact and diversity and inclusion, the sponsorship proved to be an invaluable opportunity and a highlight of her time at UT. She says experiences like this show the importance and benefit of integrating leadership and ethics into the curriculum across the university because they equip students with the abilities to think critically and tackle prominent local and global issues.

Drumwright has dedicated much of her career to advocating for expanding the university curriculum. Previously, as the chair of the Ethics and Leadership Flag Committee, she led various departments in creating 158 courses that count toward that flag requirement for students. And for the past 18 years, she has been the chair or co-chair of the Bridging Disciplines Ethics and Leadership certificate program, which gives undergraduates from any major the chance to specialize in these topics. She’s proud of the steps she and her colleagues have taken to integrate leadership and ethics into the curriculum and hopes to continue to make strides during her time at UT.

One of her favorite parts about working at UT? There’s never a dull moment, she says. “I don’t see how any faculty could ever be bored at UT because there are just so many interesting initiatives, amazing people — both students and faculty — to interact with and learn from, and just so many ways to broaden your horizons.”

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