UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Leadership lessons from a geographer’s perspective

A sense of humor is vital for navigating the map of today’s careers, says Brad Rundquist, College of Arts & Sciences dean

Brad Rundquist, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UND, delivers his talk as part of the 18:83 Speaker Series on April 10. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

“I still believe in a place called Hope,” said then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, acknowledging his boyhood in Hope, Ark.

What might Clinton have said if he’d been born in Uncertain, Texas?

Well, if he’d turned to a young Brad Rundquist, at the time the assistant city editor of The Messenger daily newspaper in Fort Dodge, Iowa, he might have gotten some great advice.

Rundquist, now the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UND, fashioned his recent 18:83 Speaker Series talk around place names such as Uncertain; Start, La.; High Hill, Mo.; and Home, Kan.

Interestingly, Rundquist has spent exactly zero time in any of those communities, a fact he captured in his talk’s title, “Leadership Lessons Learned in Places I’ve Never Been.” But he’s a geographer by training, he noted in his talk. And the place names are so evocative that “I couldn’t resist the concept,” he said.

“My life has unfolded in real places, but I thought it might be fun to look at places that have names that are descriptive of my leadership journey.”

Besides, he loves small towns, and that description fits all of the places he chose. “And I thought that besides talking about leadership, we can also learn a little bit about geography today. Who can resist that?” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

A common place to start

Rundquist spoke on April 10 as part of the 18:83 Speaker Series, an event that happens each Wednesday afternoon at the Memorial Union’s Social Stairs. Speakers time their addresses to about 18 minutes and 83 seconds, a number that coincides with UND’s founding year.

“So let’s start our figurative journey today in a place called Uncertain, Texas,” Rundquist said. Residents there tell several stories about the name’s origin, one of them centering on the founders’ confusion over whether Uncertain actually was in Texas or neighboring Louisiana.

“But I selected it because it describes a place that I lived for quite a while on my journey: uncertain,” he said.

“And I think I’ve seen several of you in town, probably,” he said, smiling at his audience and again drawing laughter. “Some of you may still live there, which is fine.”

The point is that a lot of people start their careers with little idea of what they want or where they’ll end up. And that’s a perfectly normal place for college students and young adults to be, Rundquist said.

In his case, Rundquist went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the goal of becoming a doctor; but like many pre-meds, he found himself being pulled in other directions. “I took advantage of that, and just took as many courses that interested me as I could,” he said.

“I took ‘King Arthur in Literature and Legend; ‘The History of Science,’ ‘20th Century Fiction’ and ‘Geography of the Soviet Union.’” If you’re thinking that latter course influenced his choice to become a geographer, you’d be right; but that’s getting ahead of our story.

In any event, Rundquist found journalism to be a great way of blending his diverse interests. So he worked for the college newspaper: “I didn’t get a lot of great assignments,” he said. “In fact, the most impactful article I wrote was about the hazards of rocking vending machines. You know, when the bag of chips or the candy that you paid for gets stuck? Well, don’t do it,” he said to more laughs. “That’s how people get hurt.”

But the longest journey starts with such very short steps, and Rundquist’s career odyssey had begun. “So, some of the leadership lessons that I learned when I lived in Uncertain are, explore your interests and take advantage of the chance to wander outside your comfort zone.”

The audience responds as Brad Rundquist, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UND, delivers his 18:83 Speaker Series Talk on April 10 at UND. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

From Globe to Enterprise to High Hill to …

Next, we’re off to Start, La., a place named by a family that had sought to make a fresh start. “And I selected it obviously because I now had started my career,” Rundquist said.

That career took him to, among other places, newspaper work in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he was a young person supervising a veteran staff. “So, my Start leadership lessons include be a good listener, practice diplomacy, embrace mistakes that you have made and do your best to learn from them, and also be humble,” he said.

Rundquist liked newspaper work. But he found himself thinking more about geography, his college minor and the interest that his course in the Soviet Union’s landscape had sparked. That brings us, figuratively, to Globe, Ariz., so named for the globe-shaped pieces of silver ore that had been discovered there, and the hometown of Lynda Carter, star of the 1970s-era TV series, “Wonder Woman.”

And a globe, of course, is a foundational tool of geography, the field that Rundquist pursued as a graduate student at Kansas State. “So what I learned in ‘Globe’ is to pursue opportunities to further your education, and challenge yourself to improve areas of weakness,” he said.

Which brings us to Enterprise, Ala., home of — among other attractions — the Boll Weevil Monument, the world’s only statue that honors an insect. Or rather, how residents triumphed over the pest, because the monument actually celebrates Enterprise’s successful turn to peanut farming after boll weevils had decimated the town’s cotton crop.

For Rundquist, Enterprise represents the spirit that brought him to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he helped train astronauts in the geography of the world they’d see outside their space shuttle windows.

He saw high-level leadership in action there, as he watched astronauts and NASA officials at work. “And I got to talk to Mission Control,” he said.

“OK, all I said was, ‘We’ve updated the Earth-observation opportunities for the next day.’ They said, ‘Roger that.’”

And that was it. “But I was pretty excited to talk with Mission Control,” he said to another laugh from the crowd.

High Hill, Mo., refers in part to the geography that Rundquist studied as he pursued his Ph.D.; and Home, Kan., is meaningful to him because “at Grand Forks and UND, I finally landed in a place I call home.”


Rundquist has been at UND since 2000. He has served as department chair, interim dean, associate dean and now dean; he’s grateful to “all of the outstanding faculty, staff and students who are here,” he said. “They’re the ones who really make this work.”

He tries to remember some lessons learned along the way, such as have passion for your work and empathy for the people you work with; do more listening than talking; and keep in mind the words of Maxwell Anderson, UND Class of 1911 and a Pulitzer Prize winner, regarding the goals of a university: the creation of beauty and the discovery of truth.

“In summary, thanks for tagging along on my figurative journey,” Rundquist said. “I hope you had fun with it. I certainly had fun putting it together.

“And if you ever win prize money on a game show because you know the hometown of Lynda Carter or the location of the famous Boll Weevil Monument, I think I deserve some of it. (laughter) Thank you all very much.”