UT Chancellor Plowman discusses leadership, strengths

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is leadership.

While female leaders have been praised for their roles in responding to COVID-19, the World Economic Forum says they’re still underrepresented in decision making. In Knoxville, that’s changing.

We have a woman mayor, vice mayor, police chief and chancellor of the University of Tennessee. We have more from our exclusive one-on-one interview with Donde Plowman, who talks about leadership in times of crisis.

“I’ve not had a, ‘oh, I’ve decided today I’m going to become a chancellor.’ That’s not how my journey went,” Plowman told us. “I’ve been influenced by other people, and I’ve always loved the work that I do. I’ve loved every moment of being in higher ed.”

“I haven’t loved all the decision moments once I became a leader, but I loved being a professor, a teacher, I loved doing research. I could go back to that tomorrow and be happy, so for me it’s been about doing work that matters and has impact and has meaning for me. It keeps me going.”

Then came the COVID-19 crisis and questions.

“During COVID,” she said, “I started reading about crisis leadership. I’ve never done this before. What do you have to do?”

She decided transparency was key, and continues weekly virtual campus COVID-19 updates in a calm and confident way.

“I realized in the process we were inviting people in, if you will, letting them become part of the decision-making process; why we are putting in restrictions, how will we know if we are doing better and people appreciated that. So, I’d like to say that was a brilliant forethought that I knew exactly why we were doing it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Plowman has certainly faced challenges in her short time as chancellor. Finding a new athletics director amid a coaching controversy in the middle of a pandemic.

“I felt really confident about my ability to pick good leaders,” she said.

Where does her confidence come from?

“I’ve used Clifton Strengths Finder tool. My top five strengths I know what they are. I try to use them every day. I’m strategic, achievement, positivity, that’s one of my strengths. I know all the strengths of my team,” she said.

“I feel a responsibility in my role. People ask me all the time, ‘don’t you feel a responsibility to other women?’ And I do feel a responsibility to mentor anyone who’s a part of my group, but I do feel that about young women as well,” Plowman told us.

We asked, “You mentioned mentoring. How do you find time to do more than, ‘Great job, liked how you did that,’?”

“I would say what’s meaningful to you and what’s meaningful to them are two different things,” Plowman replied. “Your 30 minutes with somebody once a week probably means a lot more to them than you think it does. I’ll never forget somebody said about me, ‘you came to see the dean and you looked at me and said, “how are you doing? How is the job today?”‘ I didn’t even remember it. This was in Nebraska and someone said, ‘I’ll always remember that it made me feel great,’ and I remember thinking small actions have such meaning for people.”

People are watching her actions through the tough times and the hopeful times.

“I try to bring every day to whatever job I’ve had, you know, my whole self. So, I try to be authentic. I don’t feel you can have a team that’s successful if people don’t know you,” she said.

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