The life of Bernie Bowman ’72 shows that a solid liberal arts education can be a springboard to unanticipated careers – he spent decades running retirement communities and nursing homes, learning largely on the job. In hindsight, Bowman recommends learning as much as possible from others, including theory, alongside working at being a leader. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Leadership tips acquired as the CEO of retirement communities with multi-million-dollar budgets

Raised on a family farm five miles west of what was then Eastern Mennonite College. Attended Rosedale Bible Institute for a year. Entered EMC to do pre-med. Went to Japan for his junior year. Returned and switched to history.

And ended up spending almost all of his professional life at the helm of retirement communities and nursing homes.

The life of Bernie Bowman ’72 is a testimony to the way a solid liberal arts education can be a springboard to almost anything.

At EMU recently as a Suter Science Seminar speaker, Bowman titled his talk “Forty Years Post-EMU: Reflections on an Unexpected Career.”

That career basically turned out to be “leadership.” Bowman took his leadership journey within the world of senior living. His last 14 years of full-time leadership were as President/CEO of Asbury, Inc., overseeing six retirement communities affiliated with the United Methodist Church in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

At age 66, eight years after stepping down as CEO, Bowman continues to work part-time at Asbury, focused on strategic planning and projects rather than operational matters. He and his wife Carol, class of ’72, live in Maryville, Tenn.

Bowman spoke of the epiphany of learning that “an individual working alone is severely limited in terms of potential outcomes,” while one who gathers and coordinates the efforts of many toward a common goal will see that “greater things are possible.”

A key Bowman lesson regarding growth as a leader: “Beg, borrow and steal from leadership journeys of others, those still practicing and those from eons past.” One of his all-time favorite books is Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership (republished as a 25th anniversary edition in 2002).

In all cases and all times, “leadership is not about getting ahead and gaining and keeping power.” Rather, it is about “empowering others to be all they can be.”

“If others, in general, are not made more whole over time because of your leadership, then something is amiss.” Bowman said a sign of poor leadership is a feedback style that interferes with a team’s performance, rather than enabling it to be more skillful.

Ten other leadership tips from Bowman:

  1. Take seriously the adage “know thyself” and explore “various personality discovery exercises.” Bowman found personality assessments especially worth revisiting when his leadership team changed.
  2. Know that you are being closely watched by others in your organization, especially subordinates, and that you set the tone and establish the culture by which others live and work.
  3. Solicit feedback, even while realizing that “it is almost impossible for the CEO to get full and unfettered feedback from employees.” Don’t rely entirely on structured survey instruments; sometimes simply walking around and talking to people will draw out better feedback.
  4. Be conversant regarding the work of employees. “If those you are leading and managing can feel that you understand their work, your authority will be better received.” Bowman periodically would change places with an employee, or arrange for mutual job shadowing, just to stay abreast of the work of others.
  5. Study and understand “change theory,” so that you grasp the importance of “bringing others along with the proposed change in advance of the change itself.” There is always a price to be paid for change, but the price is lower if you do it this way.
  6. Become sensitive to – inform yourself about – cultural differences when you shift work environments. Even a shift from one region of the United States to another can require a different approach to leadership, as Bowman discovered when he shifted from Iowa to an Appalachian region (east Tennessee).
  7. Work at creating your own leadership style, and know how to adjust it to suit each distinctive group of workers and different work environments. Bowman recommended Management of Organizational Behavior by Paul Hersey, Kenneth H. Blanchard and Dewey E. Johnson (10th edition, 2012) for gaining an understanding of an adaptive leadership style. “It is often more effective for the executive to change his or her style to meet the needs of others than to ask and expect employees to adapt to the executive’s style.” This requires having “knowledge of, and experience with, a variety of leadership styles so you can flex with the situation.”
  8. Think of strategic planning as akin to a river. “It is always moving and constantly changing.”
  9. Don’t hesitate to seek out executive coaching for assistance “in learning the requisite attitude, behavior and skills needed to perform” as well as possible. “We assume other staff need continuing support and training in their roles; why not CEOs?”
  10. Expect to sometimes fall short or even fail over the course of a long career: “The fact is, sometimes one can exercise the best of leadership skills and still not be successful.” In such situations, it is time to “let go” and follow an alternate path.

In summary, Bowman advised his listeners to start with “a solid base in theory and concepts,” then live, experience and adapt these in one’s workplace. In so doing, the exercise of leadership will become “an act of natural self-expression.”