Leadership Lessons

Bob Bowlsby ’75 (health and physical education) is defined by Midwestern roots—humility, a robust work ethic, and truthfulness. He wrestled at MSUM from 1972-75, was a four-year letterwinner, and won the NIC title at 167 pounds his senior year. He was captain of the wrestling team and president of the Old Order of Owls, activities he says started him on the path of leadership.

Bowlsby quickly advanced in the sports administration field, and at age 62 is at the pinnacle of a remarkable and successful career. Below is a portion of our interview with the Big 12 Conference Commissioner, who is also a member of our Alumni Foundation board of directors.

What do you remember about your time at MSUM?
I was captain of the wrestling team and president of the Old Order of Owls and both experiences started me on the path of leadership. Some of my closest friends in the world are people I met here. MSUM always had really good teaching. Soc Glasrud was so articulate and erudite; I remember thinking he was the smartest guy I had ever met. He wasn’t unusual. There were a lot of really good teachers. I had a wonderful time here.

How is college athletics important?
Athletics is a co-curricular activity, but it’s about helping transform 18-year-old adolescents to 22-year-old adults. It may be the best leadership laboratory on a campus. It can teach a lot about perseverance, resiliency, and fighting through adversity. There are other places to get that experience, but I don’t know if there’s any place to get it that’s better and more real world than the athletic environment.

What advice do you give to young people?
Somebody told me that when I got my first athletic director job I’d heard the whole truth for the last time. Truth is a matter of perspective. If you’re in a management position, you’re there to manage people’s differences in perspectives.

What guides your decision-making?
I have a pretty good gyroscope of what’s fair and my intuition is good. I have come to trust myself more over the years. The old Rotary four-way test is a good measure—is it true, is it fair, does it serve everybody well, and does it build goodwill and better relationships?

What has contributed to your success?
I was an assistant AD at Northern Iowa when I had the opportunity to be interviewed for the position of AD. Dr. Curris was the president and there was luck, serendipity, a lot of hard work and a strange set of circumstances, but I ended up getting the job. I often wonder what my career would have been like if he hadn’t taken a chance on me before I was ready. I had a 63-year-old football coach and a 55-year-old basketball coach, and they thought I was dumber than a bag of rocks. I had the good fortune of being able to demonstrate my skills and abilities early on. I could have gone another 20 years without getting an AD job. I think the harder you work, the luckier you get, but the fact is there’s a lot of situational stuff, too. You have to be in the right place at the right time.

How do you feel about the direction MSUM’s athletics program is heading?
We’ve made particularly good progress with the basketball program, and it’s clear the football team is making progress. They have the right leadership in place and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Why do you give your time, talent and treasure to MSUM?
It’s my alma mater. I care about the place and it gives me a good excuse to get back and see family (Bob’s wife, Candace (Lapash) Bowlsby ’77 (elementary education) is from Moorhead). MSUM is not the only place I give back financially, but I don’t serve on any other advisory boards. I think you reinvest in the places that made a difference for you, and this is a place that’s made a difference for me.

What makes you a good leader?
I think I’m known as a steady hand, a person that’s hard to rattle. My colleagues would tell you they usually don’t have to guess what I’m thinking; I express myself forthrightly. I tell people what I think I can deliver and deliver 100 percent of it. That’s part of the Midwestern way—you do what you say and say what you do.


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Fall 2014.

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