by Glenn R. Swift
An English author in a distant age once described leadership as “the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” Not a bad definition…but there is something far greater to leadership, something much more human… something that really cannot be defined.
Leadership is the quality that some very gifted people have that raise us up to a level of accomplishment of which we almost certainly could not have achieved on our own. They make us feel as if we are a part of something greater, inspiring us not only to achieve for ourselves, but on behalf of others as well. And just when we are full of self-doubt, frustration and fear, they appear in our midst…right when we need them most. How do some people become great leaders? Perhaps we will never know. Maybe they’re just born that way. Whatever it is, they are here—and they are reaching out to us.
Jean Wihbey is one such leader.
In just two years as Provost at Palm Beach State’s Eissey Campus in Palm Beach Gardens, enrollment has soared to over 9,000 and the school’s esprit de corps has reached new heights, energizing faculty and student body alike. Wihbey’s passionate commitment to environmental education and awareness has led to the Eissey Campus becoming recognized as one of the “greenest” college campuses in the Sunshine State.
Wihbey’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
In addition to her considerable recognition by the local and regional media, numerous community civic and charitable organizations have sought her organizational and business acumen. Wihbey’s impact has been felt in another way as Northern Palm Beach County residents are prouder than ever of the academic jewel that flourishes in their midst. Wihbey’s story is a powerful one and one from which all of us can glean a greater understanding as to how we can achieve our maximum potential and help our fellow man along the way. The oldest of six children and a native of Connecticut, Jean Wihbey has always been a “people person.” More importantly, she has always bloomed wherever she was planted.
Prior to coming to the Eissey Campus, Wihbey served as Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at Northwestern Connecticut Community College. Before her tenure at NCCC, she was Associate Dean of Learning, Corporate and Community Education and Chief Administrative Officer for the North Haven Campus at Gateway Community College. She has also served as Director at Middlesex Community College’s Meriden Campus and Naugatuck Valley Community College, both in her home state of Connecticut.
As for her academic credentials, Wihbey graduated with a Bachelor’s in Economics from Fairfield University. In the ten years following her graduation, Wihbey owned and operated three businesses: a floral store named “Jean’s Greens,” a drive-in movie theatre and a video store. Although the businesses were successful, the allure of academia compelled her to return to school.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who people open up to, telling me their problems and asking for advice. But I didn’t feel that I had the tools to help them. So, I decided to go back to school and learn those tools. It was a great decision because I really enjoyed school as an older student,” recalled Wihbey.
Wihbey earned a Master of Science in Counseling from Southern Connecticut State University and became a nationally certified counselor. Despite her significant achievement in the counseling field, Wihbey instinctively knew she wasn’t in the right place.
“The clinical setting just wasn’t right for me. The culture was strange,” said Wihbey, who then returned to Southern Connecticut to work as an adjunct instructor in the Graduate School Department of Education, Counseling and School Psychology.
“At first I taught part time, supplementing my income with grant-funded work. But after a year I was teaching full time, and I loved every minute of it. I went on to work at three more community colleges, moving up all along the way.”
Reinvigorated, Wihbey went on to earn her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Connecticut. Amazingly, she earned her doctorate while working as a full-time faculty member teaching two college classes a day.
“I knew this was something I really wanted and was willing to make the necessary sacrifice.”
Over the years, Wihbey has received numerous awards including the 2008 Exemplary Leadership Award from the New England College Board and the Tamarack Woman of the Year Award from the American Association of Women in Community Colleges.
“After sixteen years as a college professor and administrator, my mission was to become the CEO of a college campus.”
In July of 2009 Wihbey got that chance when she accepted the position of Provost for Palm Beach State’s Eissey Campus in Palm Beach Gardens.
“After having lived in Connecticut all my life, I was initially hesitant about the idea of living year-round in Florida. But I couldn’t be happier anywhere else than where I am today.”
Wihbey is more than willing to acknowledge a power greater than herself was at work in landing her in her new surroundings.
“It was truly serendipitous that I was offered this opportunity. All of my previous jobs in education provided me the skills and experience for this position.”
As for the green transformation that has taken place at the Eissey Campus, the Queen readily acknowledged that she did not arrive in Palm Beach Gardens as a “champion of green.”
“Once I got here and understood the direction that the college wanted to go in terms of achieving sustainability in all areas, I went gangbusters in implementing that strategic plan because I realized this was a significant and important endeavor.”
An integral part of the Eissey’s green initiative has focused upon the curriculum, specifically in terms of integrated learning opportunities for its students.
“We’ve worked hard to create an array of vigorous and relevant courses that are of value to employers in our area. Of course, one of our biggest challenges is to support our curriculum development with job projections. That’s why we’ve forged a number of strategic relationships, like those with the Scripps Research Institute, the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University, so that we can keep our hand on the pulse of an ever-changing workplace.”
One of the most important developments at the Eissey Campus in terms of greening its curriculum was the creation of the school’s Green Institute.
“The Institute offers a wide range of courses in emerging green technologies that provide new, exciting and environmentally friendly career opportunities, such as wind and solar power, biofuels, biomeds, photovoltaic systems and other green building practices.”
As Provost of the Eissey Campus, Wihbey has distinguished herself not only in greening the campus but by constantly looking for ways to develop relationships to help others achieve success both on and off campus.
“I like to spend time planning and understanding what people’s needs are, their particular motivation and interest, and then try to find out what the community I am engaged with wants,” said Wihbey, who credits her career success to possessing a combination of passion and action for her work.
She frequently serves as a motivational and informational speaker and has written several articles on personal success, leadership and development.
“Anyone can develop their leadership skills,” Wihbey said. “And you
can cultivate leaders in a way that’s productive.” As to how best to do that, the Queen of Green was ready and willing to reveal her secrets.
“I call them the Five C’s: competence, credibility, connections, communication and charisma.”
“This is where leadership begins. People need to know that you know what you’re doing, that you’re aware of current trends, are confident
and have a vision. Your direction needs to be clear enough that others know how they fit into the plans, and they need to understand your expectations so that they can fulfill them,” said Wihbey, who sets aside at least an hour each night to read. “This helps me stay on top of the important trends and issues in my field.”
“An academic leader must show integrity and be known as trustworthy and reliable. Otherwise, the distrust faculty and staff members feel will result in speculation and confusion on campus. As a result, they could build coalitions that leave an academic leader isolated.”
“Building relationships and developing community partnerships are important elements of success for an academic leader.”
“Elements of good communication include listening, asking questions, compiling information and relaying messages. Academic leaders have access to many types of technology that enable them to communicate. But taking advantage of those tools is not enough. You’ve got to meet people in person or pick up the phone, ‘I read your e-mail, let’s talk’ is a good approach. Then again, it’s important to be cautious about how much information you are sending out. Recipients are likely to receive up to 150 e-mails a day, so it’s important not to overwhelm them.”
“Some people exude magic or intrigue that draws people close. Others want to hear what those leaders have to say. These leaders are inspirational, pleasant and fun spirited.”
Just how do you achieve the necessary levels of competence, credibility, connections, communication and charisma? The Queen recommends five more C’s to complement the first five: courage, compassion, commitment, compromise and character.
“It takes courage to confront people you’re having difficulty with. Also, you’ll have to make tough decisions that can affect people’s livelihoods and make a difference for the institution’s future. And you have to accept that your ideas might not always work.”
“When you make decisions that affect others, you need to care about them. It’s also important to understand what motivates people so that you can reward them for their work. Some people want money, but others value status or leisure time.”
“It takes persistence to meet the many challenges your job presents and overcome the obstacles to providing what your campus or college needs. If you’ve had a bad day or an initiative that’s important to you is not moving forward, it’s time to step back and gain perspective.
“When you get highly intelligent people together to make decisions, they’re not always going to agree. Deans and provosts need to focus upon what really needs to get done and help people work together to achieve the goals.”
“If you have any questions that an action might be unethical, don’t do it.”
Committed to helping all those around her to lead healthier, happier, greener lives, the Queen of Green has always felt a special connection to the arts — especially theater and ballet.
“I feel emotionally and spiritually connected to the arts,” Wihbey said. “The arts lift my spirits, and I think all of us should have that kind of experience.”
Wihbey wants PBSC students to feel that same connection, which is why shortly after her arrival she spearheaded a drive to build an amphitheater on campus — a tough sell in a not so great economy.
After persuading the powers at be that the proposed structure could be rented out to create a new revenue stream for the college, Wihbey’s dream became a reality.
This past April the school celebrated the grand opening of a 1,205-square-foot, 450-seat outdoor amphitheatre, complete with inflatable movie screens, right in the center of campus. The Queen of Green made sure that the project included an aesthetically pleasing eco-friendly landscape with a beautiful pond, free-flowing river rock waterfall, grassy sitting area and lush herbal garden.
Undeniably, the amphitheater will serve as an extension of the highly successful, 750-seat Eissey Campus Theatre, as well as providing students another area to socialize while exposing them to the arts.
“The indoor space for students to congregate is limited,” Wihbey said. “Florida is beautiful and being outside is a wonderful thing.”
Few Floridians would argue with that. As for any other successful leadership strategies, the Queen revealed another of her pearls of wisdom.
“Start each day fresh. When the day is over, be done with it. More importantly, find balance between your work and your personal life so that you get a break from the challenges. Cultivate a hobby and tend to your personal relationships.”
Wihbey has made quite a mark during her short tenure at the Eissey Campus, but she is the first to give credit to others for making it all possible.
“To accomplish great things you have to surround yourself with great people, and I have a great team. They are some of the finest professionals I have ever worked with and they challenge me every day to do the best job I can possibly do.”
Leadership is largely intangible, but its merits are readily recognizable and quantifiable. What has transpired at Palm Beach State’s Eissey Campus these last two years is a case in point. And when all is said and done, what Wihbey and her all-star team of dedicated professionals are accomplishing is summed up most articulately by the queen herself.
“We’re creating cutting-edge, grass roots leaders in a new economy.”