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Overcoming Adversity and Leadership: Profile of Blenda Wilson, Ph.D

By Dr Howard Edward Haller

This groundbreaking leadership research by has received extensive endorsements and enthusiastic reviews from well-known prominent business, political, and academic leaders who either participated in the study or reviewed the research findings. You will discover the proven success habits and secrets of people who, in spite of difficult or life threatening challenges shaped their own destiny to become successful, effective leaders. The full results of this research will be presented in the upcoming book by Dr. Howard Edward Haller which is titled -Leadership: View from the Shoulders of Giants.

The nine initial prominent successful leaders who overcame adversity that were interviewed included: Dr. Tony Bonanzino, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, Monzer Hourani, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, Dr. John Malone, Larry Pino, U.S. Army Major General Sid Shachnow, Dr. Blenda Wilson, and Zig Ziglar.

The data from these nine research participants was materially augmented by seven more successful leaders who overcame adversity interviews including: Jack Canfield, William Draper III, Mark Victor Hansen, J. Terrence Lanni, Angelo Mozilo, Dr. Nido Qubein, and Dr. John Sperling.

Additionally, five internationally known and respected leadership scholars offered their reviews of the leadership research findings including: Dr. Ken Blanchard, Jim Kouzes, Dr. John Kotter, Dr. Paul Stoltz, and Dr. Meg Wheatley.

This is a short biography of one of the principal participants who generously contributed their time and insight for this important research into the phenomenon of how prominent successful leaders overcome adversity and obstacles.

This Blenda's story:

Blenda Wilson grew up in a small New Jersey town in the 1950s. Most people believed that the best Blenda could hope for was a low-paying office job, and that college was unrealistic and beyond her economic reach.

Blenda's family had experienced racial discrimination. Her mother "was a bright black woman who had graduated from "normal school in the racially segregated deep south of America, during the Depression. According to Blenda, her mother was a "very, very intelligent woman, [with a] powerful mind and fortitude." She said, "My mother moved from Georgia...the north didn't accept normal school [teaching] credentials, and so she became, throughout her working career...a white-collar worker, [a] salesperson at Sears, an elevator operator...[and] a girls supervisor in a juvenile detention home."

Blenda's father "went to technical vocational school...completed the [electrician] certificate, and in those days, to become an electrician, you had to be apprenticed. He was black and he could never get an apprenticeship, so he could never be an electrician." He became a laborer instead of an electrician.

Blenda shared that her mother, who had experienced racial discrimination, insisted that her children "didn't go out of the house dirty and slovenly...because she [had] lived in a really segregated south." Her mother shared "stories where, if they were in town, and a white person was walking down the street, black people stepped off into the curb." Blenda then described her own experiences with racial, gender and age discrimination.

Despite her membership in the National Honor Society at her high school in Woodbridge, New Jersey, her guidance counselor refused even to talk to her about going to college. Blenda's comment was, "God, she was really mean to me. She never, ever gave me any counseling about college; she never invited me to college prep stuff." Wilson said that on the contrary, "Actually, she told me to "take a typing class...then said, "You're nice looking, and you might be able to become a secretary." Now that's supposed to be a compliment."

Wilson recalled, "Fortunately, I was riding a bus and heard some women talk about college opportunities, and how they had heard that women's colleges were providing scholarships for smart black students. I thought, "That"d be me." Their conversation convinced Blenda that she could find such a college for herself and a way to pay for tuition, books, food, and housing.

Wilson wrote many colleges, seeking more information, applied for admission, and asked for full scholarships. "I got admitted to all of the colleges I applied to, and these were the colleges you know, they were the "seven sisters." She received scholarship offers from several major colleges, but initially they offered only one-year scholarships with a series of renewals. Blenda commented, "I would just write them [the college] back and say, "I'd really love to come, but you have to give me more money!" She continued, "I was determined to get a full four-year scholarship, to ensure that I could get completely through college, since I knew my parents could not afford to pay for me to go."

Ultimately, "Cedar Crest guaranteed me four years tuition, [a] travel budget, and a job." She graduated from Cedar Crest College with a major in English and Secondary Education. She went on to earn a Master's degree in Education from Seton Hall, and then a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Boston College.

Early in her career she experienced gender and age discrimination from African American males, both in the community and within her organization. Though she was more qualified and more educated than her competition, some people were vocal in their opposition to her getting the job as Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation.

Blenda said, "The African American men in the community were pissed off that a woman would get this role....One of the criteria was that they wanted someone with a Master's degree. I had one. None of the African American men did." Blenda said she experienced several kinds of prejudice: "There's prejudice from men, there's prejudice from black men, there's prejudice from white people."

Wilson said taking a leave from her local high school teaching position to become the Executive Director of the Middlesex County Economic Opportunity Corporation "actually changed my life. I started doing the Head Start program. There was political turmoil. This was all in the "60s, with the war on poverty, the Office of Economic Opportunity. I was going to change the world."

Blenda "was youngest Senior Associate Dean in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, and once again she encountered age discrimination. Wilson shared that she had "worked with and was tutored by Dr. John Gardner after leaving Harvard.

After she left Harvard she became Chancellor of the University of Michigan. After that she became the President of California State University, Northridge for seven years, from 1992 to 1997, and led the university's recovery from the Northridge earthquake in January of 1994.

In addition to having served as a Getty Foundation Trustee for over a decade, Dr. Wilson is the President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation in Quincy, Massachusetts. She is also a past chair of the American Association of Higher Education. Dr. Wilson serves as a trustee of the College Board, and she is Deputy Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Dr. Blenda Wilson still takes time out of her busy schedule to mentor and coach select prospective female prospective leaders.

Copyright 2006 © Howard Edward Haller, Ph.D.

Howard Edward Haller, Ph.D.

Chief Enlightenment Officer

The Leadership Success Institute

About The Author
Howard Edward Haller, Ph.D. is the Chief Enlightenment Officer of the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho based The Leadership Success Institute. His Doctoral dissertation in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga Univ. included interviews with prominent US leaders in business, politics & education. He is turning is leadership Doctoral dissertation into a book titled- "Leadership : View From the Shoulders of Giants"

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