Leadership guru and bestselling author Ken Blanchard describes servant leadership this way:
"Servant leaders feel their role is to help people achieve their goals. They try to find out what their people need to be successful. They want to make a difference in the lives of their people and, in the process, impact the organization."
Blanchard could have saved a lot of words by simply inserting a photo of Phyllis Wenger. She was the model of servant leadership as executive assistant to Emporia State University President Michael Shonrock until her retirement on June 7, 2013.
Wenger, often known affectionately as Phyl, is the Emily Dickinson of leadership. It is as natural for her as Paul McCartney writing a hit song or Emporia's Clint Bowyer finishing in the money at a NASCAR race. And like Bowyer, she has a trophy case of awards for her work.
"My favorite memories of working at Emporia State," she says, "always include helping our student-employees in the President's office grow each day and the joy I feel when a graduate calls to say they landed a job."
One such student even called recently to thank Wenger for making her do a project, and seeing it through to the end, even though it was something the student secretly disliked. That type of project helped her get hired to her new position, she said.
Another affectionate but less known nickname for Wenger has been "Military Momma."
"I am very structured," admitted Wenger. "You have to be in this office. Expectations are high when you work for a president of the university. The number of people and amount of business going through the president's office is at times almost overwhelming."
But Wenger has always been up to the task and does everything she can to make sure others in the office have the support they need.
During my time working with her she has encouraged me to do my best in my work both in the office and at school," says student-employee Jennifer Clark. "She is the perfect combination of a boss and nurturer."
Clark adds that Wenger when working on a project with student-employees, clearly sets out her ideas but encourages them to come up with ideas and be creative to make the project more efficient.
"Allowing us to use our own judgment and creativity has really helped my growth in critical and efficient thinking," says Clark. "In assigning tasks Phyl knows how to play off the strengths of each student worker while helping develop the areas we aren't as strong in."
Wenger has a "kind heart and soul," adds Clark.
Student-employee Courtney Kuhlmann seconds that description and adds, "Phyl genuinely cares about each and every person she works with. Everyday when we walk into the office we are greeted with a friendly smile and asked how our day is going. She takes on a very nurturing role in the office and it gives us students that sense of ease to know that she will always be there to pick us up when we are having a bad day.”
Two other student-employees excited to applaud Wenger were Michelle Trejo and Amanda Humphrey, although there is no doubt many more could be found. For Trejo, Wenger is able to keep standards and expectations high so that the office and its employees achieve success, but at the same time remain kind and thoughtful, making her a joy to work with. Wenger has taught her much, but most important, has become a friend, she adds.
"She is one of the most thoughtful people I know and will always make your birthday special, follow up on how your weekend plans carried out, and make you laugh with a cute story or joke. I consider Phyllis a friend of mine, yet I have the utmost respect for her as a boss and mentor. She has the rare ability to develop friendships in the workplace, yet maintain respect and authority. Phyllis is a gem and her great attitude on life is contagious. She is a role model I will always admire. “
For student-employee Amanda Humphrey, Wenger had her at "Hello."
“She was one of the very first people I met at ESU, and she truly embodies the warm nature and caring demeanor of this campus. When you work with Phyl, you get the pleasure of having a role model who cares deeply about ESU and the Emporia community and upholds a very high level of professionalism, care, and attention to detail in everything she does.
"She inspires and encourages everyone around her to achieve the same high standards," adds Humphrey.
Former Emporia State University Provost Tes Mehring, who as provost, dean, and professor has had lots of interaction with Wenger, says "I don't think there are enough accolades to adequately describe Phyl Wenger. She is one of those individuals who brings a smile to work each day and strives to make sure that everyone she encounters leaves her office or hangs up the phone after interacting with her feeling that she heard you and tried her best to accommodate the request or need presented. Phyl is one of those people you are glad that ESU was lucky enough to have as an employee for so many years."
Emporia State Presidents, six of them including interims, have been fortunate to work with Wenger, too. During her career at ESU, she has worked for Robert Glennen, Kay Schallenkamp, John Schwenn (interim), Michael Lane, Ed Flentje (interim), and Michael Shonrock.
Imagine the pressure-cooker atmosphere involved in overseeing a college campus and its constituents. It is like a clearing house, says Wenger, with an enormous amount of requests coming in by phone, mail, e-mail, or in person every day.
"All six of the presidents had their own unique leadership style," adds Wenger. "It has been a pleasure to assist each one in their role as leader.
"Each new president has the same basic objective, to move the school forward," she says. "Each has had a different method of getting there and had the best interests of the school at heart. I have always tried to be part of the team and do my part to help the president to keep moving the university forward. And I hope that Emporia State can say that the executive assistant to the president has always helped make ESU better. I am sure the next executive assistant will make ESU proud."
When asked about her retirement, Wenger paused and smiled.
"It has been a blessing to work with the administrators, staff, students, and faculty at Emporia State. I have found through the years that they all want the best for ESU," says Wenger, who will finish with nearly 18 years of service to Emporia State Presidents.
Prior to her executive assistant position, Wenger spent 10 years at Flint Hills Technical College as an office technology teacher. Before that she was an instructor in the School of Business at Emporia State from 1976 to 1985. Wenger was born in Emporia but lived her entire life in Reading, Kan. She graduated from ESU (Kansas State Teachers College at the time) with a bachelor's in 1972 and a master's in vocational education in 1977. She later obtained her Ed.S from Pittsburg State.
Wenger not only loves being part of the Hornet family, she married into it with her husband James Wenger, an ESU Professor now retired from the School of Business. And their two children, Scott and Stacy, both obtained degrees from Emporia State. Keeping the helping, serving tradition alive, Scott has gone on to be a surgeon, while Stacy is a nurse practitioner.
Selling the value of Emporia State is not just a family affair for Wenger, though. She goes worldwide with her pitch.
"If you want to be part of a team that is more like a family, then Emporia State University could be the place for you," she offers.
Everyone who knows Wenger, however, can't imagine her simply riding off into the sunset. And she has no plans of the kind.
There are five grandchildren from ages 6 to 13 that need some of Wenger's nurturing, and chocolate chip cookies, and there is a mission she has wanted to get involved in for many years. Now is the time, she said.
"I was inspired by the Hospice organization and how much they helped with my mother," she explains. "I want to work with Hospice now and give back.”
So the servant leadership continues. And we can all say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, Phyllis Wenger."