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Lee Cockerell shares the magic of leadership with USF doctoral students

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“Leadership is a stage. Be careful how you act. Don’t underestimate your influence.”  These are words of wisdom that Mr. Lee Cockerell, former Walt Disney World Resort executive, relinquished into the minds of USF’s Doctoral Student Leadership Institute participants.  The March 4 lecture focused on “How to be the leader who everyone wants to work with and where everyone wins.”

“The world has certainly changed and students need leadership skills that will prepare them for many different professional environments,” said Karen Liller, PhD, director of the Institute and professor of community and family health.

 

(l,r) Mr. Lee Cockerell, Dr. Karen Liller, and members of the USF Doctoral Student Leadership Institute

(l,r) Mr. Lee Cockerell, Dr. Karen Liller, and members of the USF Doctoral Student Leadership Institute

The USF Leadership Institute “provides students with many opportunities to learn and practice leadership skills, which include formal courses, seminars, a plethora of resources, and workshops,” Liller said. Additionally, fellows form a leadership journal club, develop service projects, create individualized leadership plans, select and learn from a mentor, develop an electronic leadership portfolio, and implement a leadership forum for the entire campus.”

Dr. Liller learned of Mr. Cockerell through a colleague who attended one of his previous talks in Tampa. Cockerell served as executive vice president of operations at Walt Disney World Resort for several years. After retiring, he gained a global reputation as an expert on leadership, management, and customer experience addressing audiences at Fortune 500 companies, educational institutions, and government agencies, including the US military.

Behind every lesson is a story and Mr. Cockerell has an amazing one. He captivated attendees with his life story and glimpses of who he was prior to becoming the influential role model that he is today.

Mr. Cockerell had very humble beginnings–being quite poor and living on a farm.  He began as a chef and his career started with Marriott.  As the years flew by, promotions increased and so did his rank and his leadership position within the company.

Cockerell shared that he knowingly made people nervous on inspections because he always found something wrong.  In fact, that was the turning point in his life.  On one occasion, the mere knowledge that he was coming made an employee so nervous that he broke down. Later on, the two met for dinner and Cockerell learned that the man’s attack was due to him. That was the day that Cockerell knew he had to make a positive change to his leadership style.

He wanted to be the person people wanted to work with and not the person people dreaded.

Mr. Cockerell reflected on his life and committed to making improvements. He enrolled in seminars and classes on leadership. After countless introspections and self-reflection exercises, Cockerell figured out the key to it all—“Anyone mean to you is insecure … I was insecure.”

Not long afterwards, Cockerell landed a job with Disney. He turned their program into a people-friendly environment with a rigorous application process to ensure that the employees were capable of withstanding any circumstance with a smile on their faces and no signs of dismay.

After almost an hour of discussion, Cockerell left the group with four key points to being a leader.

  1. Technically competent. Recognize your current skill set and what you need to acquire (through seminars or formal courses) to be a contender in your field. Also, hire good people with the skills that are needed to be the best.
  2. Time management competence. How do you keep your life under control? It starts with keeping time under control. Cockerell recommends, “Think about what you did yesterday and what you could have done better, then fix it before moving forward.”
  3. Technological competence.  Keep up with innovations. “You don’t want to still be on a pager system when everyone else is using text and email.”
  4. Leadership competence. “Management is about doing. Leadership is about being,” Cockerell shared.  “Be the leader people want to work with.”

 

(l,r) Dr. Karen Liller, Mr. Lee Cockerell, College of Public Health alumna and anthropology doctoral student Bernice Lopez MPH, and Morsani College of Medicine doctoral student Chase Lambert

(l,r) Dr. Karen Liller, Mr. Lee Cockerell, College of Public Health alumna and anthropology doctoral student Bernice Lopez, MPH, and Morsani College of Medicine doctoral student Chase Lambert

“I was very impressed with him truly being a leader and practicing what he preached!,” Liller said.  “He provided the students with great information about what it means to be a leader in today’s world—especially how to be exemplary in difficult and challenging times and how never to be content with the status quo.”

Dr. Karen Liller is a professor in the USF College of Public Health.  In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science named her a Fellow. The Department of Community and Family Health serves as Dr. Liller’s academic home and offers more than 10 concentrations that lead to MPH, MSPH, DrPH, and PhD degrees, as well as dual degrees, special programs, and graduate certificates.

Story and photos by Infiniti Mincey, USF College of Public Health

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