Faculty Focus: Dr. Phyllis Duncan

Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dr. Phyllis Duncan brings more than two decades of business experience and executive leadership to the classroom at Our Lady of the Lake University.

She brings a voice that rises to heaven.

“One of the things I enjoy so much about our institution is the ability to have prayer with students at the beginning of each class,” says Dr. Duncan, a professor in the Department of Leadership Studies. “Sometimes I offer the prayer. Sometimes I’ll ask if anyone wants to volunteer the prayer.”

Her students are adult learners pursuing their doctorates in Leadership Studies while facing spiritual challenges and balancing family and career.

“We pray for anybody who has a need,” she says. “It’s amazing. Adults in mid-career all have needs. Most of them have fathers and mothers who are getting up in age. They have children who have other kinds of needs. They also have the stress of career demands. Students want to know that people care. And they see Our Lady of the Lake University as a school that cares about them and their families.”

Are students surprised when class begins with prayer?

“I think they probably are in that first class when they come into the program,” Dr. Duncan says. “I don’t know that for a fact. But if I didn’t do it, they would ask me to. It’s really a sense of family.

“These are folks who will be in the doctoral program for four years. They become very close to their cohort members, and I feel like I’m part of their family. We share some of the joys and heartaches of being family members.”

Before arriving at OLLU in 2006, Dr. Duncan held executive leadership positions in the business world. She served as president and chief operating officer of a graphics company in Memphis, Tenn. She also served as a senior vice president of companies in Dallas and San Antonio.

Leadership is something that has fascinated Dr. Duncan for many years.

“While I was pursuing my MBA at the University of Arkansas, I was curious: What makes a good leader? Why are some successful? Why do others fail? I was always looking for answers in journal articles,” she says. “Great leaders inspire people. They motivate people to do things they could not possibly otherwise accomplish. Great leaders build/develop their own people. They are able to groom and mentor to help them be successful.”

During her years in the business world, Dr. Duncan had the opportunity to study great leaders in action.

“I was fortunate to get to know a few CEOs back in those days like Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) and Norman Brinker (restaurateur/CEO of parent company of Chili's, Macaroni Grill, On the Border). After meeting ‘Mr. Sam,’ I was fortunate to work with him on several of their early Sam’s Club openings in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas while I was with James River. My first meeting with Norman was on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Antonio when he was returning from a day of playing polo. He was an incredibly intuitive and innovative man who focused on the customer experience."

Dr. Duncan’s curiosity about leadership led to further study and eventually a doctorate and a career as a professor of leadership studies. She is now able to help her students develop the qualities that are found in great leaders.

“Students in our program take home things from every class they can put into place on Monday morning in their own organizations” she says. “And that’s probably the most exciting thing for me. They take something they can use and see how it works in the real world.”