Russ Gifford
Connecting Regional History with National History... by Telling the Stories of Individuals


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Dr. Robert E. Dunker Leadership Lectures

In the Fall of 2022, my Leadership Lectures expanded to look at not only a former President BEFORE he becomes President, but a noted business leader, and a famed explorer whose planning went completely awry. All of these examples of real world leadership are stories that should be celebrated and remembered. Not only are the stories thrilling - but the lessons are vital ones for people of all ages! 

Frances Perkins - The Key to the New Deal?

Click here to view the Zoom discussion of Frances Perkins

One of the most fascinating Cabinet Secretaries of any administration, Frances Perkins strode past the Men Only sign on her way to become the first female to serve in a President’s official Cabinet. Moreover, her post was Secretary of Labor, which was certainly not an expected or traditional role for any woman.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins has often been referred to as the mother of Social Security. They are not wrong. But she is so much more.

Perkins would coerce businesses into recognizing the 40-hour work week and getting a federal minimum wage law passed. Unemployment insurance was on her agenda, as was getting rid of child labor.

When FDR offered her the Cabinet post, knowing her abilities, she informed him that all these things and more were reforms she intended to achieve - and needed his total support for her full agenda of reforms if she were to accept the position.

Roosevelt did not hesitate. He had seen her work in New York, and knew Perkins had earned the Cabinet post by working tirelessly for workers rights and safety standards for two decades. SShe got the job and his agreement to fight for all of her priorities.

Perkins cried herself to sleep that night, knowing the hell she was inviting into her life, yet again breaking into the 'all men's club.' She knew all too well the nasty sniping and backstabbing that would follow.

She may have been one of the most successful cabinet secretaries, but the job was never easy. The stories of her dustups with big-name businessmen are legion. She never flinched, and the men knew they’d been in a fight when she finished dealing with them. That was also true of fellow Cabinet members that might try to stand in her way as well. 

Meet the fireball that provided much of the direction and thrust of the social side of the New Deal, as Russ Gifford looks to the leadership skills of Frances Perkins.

Herbert Hoover - BEFORE he became President -

Click here to see the Zoom discussion of Herbert Hoover!

Before his presidency, Herbert Hoover blazed a trail around the world. The young man born and orphaned in Iowa possessed an incredible intellect and the gritty gumption to carry out his ideas. His brilliant work in mining made him rich, but his time in the outback of Australia and his adventures in China's Boxer Rebellion read like an Indiana Jones novel! For people sitting in their living room as the 20th century dawned in America, he was an exciting read, and a fascinating personality.

Hoover's stature only grew as the  War in Europe dawned. 'Bert', and his wife Lou - another Iowan -  put their skills and their fortune to work saving those caught up in the outbreak of the first war to engulf the entire world. Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. "Let the fortune go to hell," he said. He inspired a team of young men to join him in the effort to save the Belgium people from the slow death that the war had put in motion. Along the way, he mobilized business leaders, common people, and everyone in between to work toward the good of their fellow man.

He also angered and frustrated the governments of Germany, England, AND the United States - all of whom were certain he was a spy for the enemy as he crossed the North Sea 40 times. He didn't care. He ran over anyone who tried to stop him. And he succeeded in saving a generation of young people in Europe who would remember him for the rest of their lives. They would pass down through their children the stories of 'the man who saved Belgium.'

The people of Belgium today still honor him. His selfless humanitarian work made him a household name, and a person parents held up as an example to their children.

Hoover wasn't finished. The amazing devastation of the Great War, and the failure of the post-war governments in the treaty of Versailles made him turn his immense organizational skills toward public service - again, to try to make a difference. He accepted the post of Secretary of Commerce and became the de facto "Under-Secretary of everything else." The young men he had mentored followed him into government service as well, and worked to make his initiatives reality. His insights brought order out of chaos as the new technologies and industries swept over America.

Join me at Western Iowa Tech on Monday October 3rd, to experience the wonders of the whirlwind his many followers would forever call "the Chief!" And see how one person can make a difference.

Ernest Shackleton


Click here to see the Zoom discussion of Shackleton's adventures!

Antarctic expedition to located Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance launches  | Science | News |, 1914, Ernest Shackleton sailed from England leading a party of explorers to Antarctica. From the start, things went badly. Far short of their intended landing site, the expedition's ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice. The crew drifted with the ship for 10 months until the packed ice crushed the ship. The crew, now stranded on the ice without cover, could only drift at the whim of the ice floes.

Well, not if Shakleton had anything to say about it. They would plan, prepare, and push these men off this ice and back to civilization if it killed him. And it almost did. 

The key to survival depended on not only intelligence and experience, which Shackleton offered, but also leadership in a situation of extreme tension and high doubt. The outcome of the story is well known - but the details of leadership in the extremes is an important lesson for all would be leaders!

Other Leadership classes:


Warren Buffett

Click here to see the Zoom talk of Buffett's Leadership style  

Clearly, the Oracle of Omaha has an amazing track record of success. He was a millionaire by age thirty. How did that happen? Was he born into wealth? These questions, and others, are tonight's agenda!

What makes Warren Buffett so influential?
What are the steps in Buffett’s style of Leadership?
What makes him good at it?
How did Buffett start in business?
Why does he think his methods succeed?

If all you know about Buffett are the headlines, his story will likely surprise you. He is often referred to as the 'Sage of the Plains' and he certainly is far more reminiscent of a community elder when he discusses business. He is not the typical 1980's 'Greed is Good' business mogul. Nor is he the standard 'buy it cheap, cut expenditures to the bone, and flip it for a profit' investor. And the story of his childhood hustle can't help but impress you.  


This series is named in honor of Dr. Robert E. Dunker, president emeritus of Western Iowa Tech Community College and founder of The Institute for Lifelong Learning. This annual series of lectures began in 2008. 

The following criteria evaluate the Presidents we review. Do they use these skills effectively?
Insight - the ability to correctly define Issues
Vision – to see a path that overcomes issues
Communicator – the ability to share the vision, and move people toward that vision
Resolve – the perseverance to work toward that end.
Inclusiveness – an ability to work with others, for the greater good, not just a short term win.

Other Leadership classes previous terms:

Presidential Leadership

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Want to see a list of ALL my classes over the years? Click here for class list!

       “His ratings were the highest for our entire season of 12 workshops, and far eclipsed those for the previous season. He created a fantastic class, and people left feeling empowered.” -- Dr. Lynn Barteck, Tri State Graduate Center

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