Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, addresses Robe Leadership Institute (RLI) scholars and Engineering Ambassadors at a special session of the RLI. Photo by Rebecca Miller
On one of the coldest nights of the year, Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, greeted a group of Ohio University engineering and technology students in one of the warmest conference rooms on campus.
“Can I take off my tie?” he asked to break the ice in the sweltering Stocker Center room.
Participating in a special session of the Russ College’s Robe Leadership Institute (RLI) seminar, almost two dozen RLI scholars and Engineering Ambassadors followed suit, rolling up their sleeves and ditching blazers and ties as Johnson recounted growing up on a “two-wheel, wagon-rut mule farm” where he learned leadership from the hardworking people who provided for him.
“He gave examples of how great leaders don't lead for fame or fortune for themselves, but rather for those they are leading,” said RLI scholar and Engineering Ambassador Talli Topp. “The simple idea of ‘don't give up’ is what has kept me in such a difficult major, is what will help me through future tough times and is the mindset that any good leader should have,” added the mechanical engineering senior from Kettering, Ohio.
RLI Assistant Director Bill Lozier invited Johnson to address the students after meeting him last spring during a trip to Washington, D.C., as part of his work as the Licking County Engineer.
“He asked all about us, so I shared my role at Ohio University and that what we try to promote is STEM education,” Lozier noted. “He had a distinguished career in the military and private sector, and this is his first elected office, so he’s obviously an accomplished leader.”
The RLI seminar, led by Lozier and RLI director David Bayless, who is also Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is held each fall to teach leadership fundamentals and encourage students to formulate their own leadership styles. Participants are chosen through a comprehensive interview process. Thursday night, participants in the Russ College’s Karol and Jo Ondick Engineering Ambassadors Program were invited to join. Also chosen via a selective nomination and interview process, ambassadors lead prospective student tours and host distinguished graduates to help enable their leadership development.
“Leadership is not about wearing a title, sitting in an office or being in charge. Leadership is about producing results, influencing the outcome of whatever you’re undertaking in life,” Johnson said, recounting his transition from farm life to nationwide travel after his mother married an Air Force officer.
“I knew how to work that farm, but how was I going to survive out there in all that stuff? My confidence level was not very high,” shared Johnson, whose 26-year career in the Air Force included working with special operations forces to carry out critical national security missions.
Johnson, an entrepreneur who now serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also gave some lessons in politics and policy. His short film, “Energy 2020,” shared his vision for America to be energy independent by the year 2020.
Students kept him in the hot seat with their questions.
“You said leaders are shepherds, and the majority puts the leader in position, but the majority can be affected by the minority. Where do we start to change the majority’s mind, to get the right leaders?” asked senior chemical engineering major Colton Moran.
Johnson noted that U.S. citizens need to stop talking about what divides us and focus more on what unites us. “Americans can do anything,” he said. “We’re the biggest, we’re the boldest, we’re the baddest. We’re problem-solvers. We’re innovators. We put our ingenuity to work,” he fired, citing industrial breakthroughs and the space race.
Joe Cooke, a senior civil engineering major from Zanesville, Ohio, who helped organize the visit, said RLI has helped him hone his inter- and intrapersonal communication skills.
“As an engineer, the logical thoughts come very naturally, but this is a great way for the Russ College to better prepare its students to be better rounded individuals. The opportunity to interact with industry and government leaders, and understand their personal stories and beliefs, will ultimately better prepare me for the tough situations I am sure to face in my career,” said Cook, also an RLI scholar and ambassador.
Topp said her future is brighter because of her experiences. “Being a part ofthe Engineering Ambassadors has helped me give back to the Russ College and ahead tofuture students,which is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do,” she said. “And the RLI has provided me with a wealth of knowledge. Before entering the class, there was so much I didn't know about how to be an effective leader,but coming out of the class not only haveI learned a lot about the fundamentals of leadership, I have also had the chance to meet some pretty amazing leaders and hear their stories.”
Johnson, who extended his one-hour scheduled visit by 40 minutes to entertain additional questions and stayed on for dinner at the Ohio University Inn with students and two staffers, left the students with an appeal to get out and vote, and one last call to duty.
“My challenge to you is lead, follow, or get out of the way. I can see by most of the eyes in here, that you are interested in leading,” he said.