Steele polishes servant leadership in new role as AgriLife Extension director

COLLEGE STATION — A mug missing from a desk at the state headquarters of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service temporarily disrupted coffee service recently.

“Where’s your mug?” Maryland Mitchell, the director’s assistant, asked her new boss.

“I washed it and put it away,” came the matter-of-fact response from the executive office on the fifth floor of the AgriLife Sciences building on the west campus of Texas A&M University in College Station.

Dr. Doug Steele, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service director. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by David Pointer).

To Dr. Doug Steele, washing his own coffee cup is a statement. A towering man with a firm handshake, Steele returned to his home state of Texas from Montana to lead the AgriLife Extension agency established in 1914 with passage of the federal Smith-Lever Act. He plans to model “servant leadership” from the smallest meeting room in one of his agency’s 250 county offices to the state capitol when the Texas Legislature convenes next January.

“An effective leader should never ask anyone to do anything that they are not willing to do themselves,” Steele said. “If I see something that needs to be done, I’m not opposed to helping set up chairs or sweeping the floors or putting away tables. That’s part of being in this together.”

Steele is adamant that “togetherness” includes an employee’s family. By his own admission, his second date with his wife Lori, a city girl from Amarillo, consisted of moving show pigs from the Tri-State Fair in Amarillo to the South-Plains Fair in Lubbock. The second week of their marriage included chaperoning youths to the State 4-H Roundup.

“She knew what she was getting into, and she’s always been a great support for me and our four children. And I try to honor time with her by scheduling a date night where she gets to pick the movie and place to eat,” said Steele. “Balancing family life is a concern I have for employees. They have very demanding positions with a lot of expectations. One of my obligations is to help our employees find the balance they need to have a successful career and enjoy their personal and family life.”

That’s the edge, he believes, in running an agency that serves the public well.

“There is no such thing as a great organization. It’s great people who come together and share a common interest,” he said. “We can never be a fully great organization unless people feel appreciated, have opportunities for professional development and have supervisors who are there to help them become better employees.”

Steele’s leadership attitude extends to the agency’s 1,350 statewide employees who support and provide educational information on a variety of topics from family and consumer science to agriculture and natural resources. He recalls those who mentored him and said he wants the same for AgriLife Extension employees.

“Like a lot of people, I probably backed into my career with Extension,” he said. “I was about to graduate from Panhandle State University and thought I would take a language course in the summer then go into missionary work.”

But Steele’s lead professor advised him that he had one required course remaining, which threw graduation plans until the end of the summer of 1981.

“Extension came to our campus to do interviews that summer, and I had never seen myself as a county agent, but I was offered a job in Potter County,” said Steele, a native of Spearman.

He credits his first boss in Extension, district director Paul Gross, for leading him ultimately to the director’s position in Texas, among the largest and most prestigious in the nation.

“He encouraged me to work on a master’s and told me he felt I could get a doctorate after that and if I would, there would be more opportunities for me,” Steele said. “It is a dream or a vision I never would have had without his encouragement.”

Steele also decided to vary his educational choices. From his bachelor’s in animal science from Panhandle State which he attended on a basketball scholarship, Steele chose general agriculture with an emphasis in agronomy for his master’s degree, which he earned in 1985 from West Texas A&M University. When given the chance to work on a doctorate, which he earned from Texas A&M University in 1992, Steele took yet another turn and studied educational human resource development.

Along the way, Steele moved from the position of assistant county agent in Potter to Hutchinson County to be agriculture program leader there, and then moved to College Station to be AgriLife Extension associate for community and economic development from 1988-90, and an AgriLife Extension 4-H youth development specialist and assistant professor from 1990-93.

Steele then went to Purdue University as Extension 4-H youth development specialist and assistant professor in the College of Education from 1993-1997 and to Colorado StateUniversity as assistant director of Cooperative Extension and state 4-H program leader from 1997-2004.

Montana State University hired Steele as vice provost and director of Extension in 2004, a position he held until becoming vice president for external relations and director of Extension at Montana State University in 2010.

“What I have found working in Extension is that if you are geographically mobile and somewhat open-minded for new and unique experiences, then it is a great career where every day you wake up to do something new,” he said. “I have probably had as much impact on others in this career as anything else I could have been doing.”

A goal of his is to represent his agency through the next Texas legislative session with his message that servant leadership begets great people who beget great service to the state’s public.

“I want to take a message that is very clear,” Steele said of his $113 million agency. “Extension is an investment that returns itself many times over to the state. Extension has been underappreciated in the areas of public good and public value.

“Some ask why we should keep Extension since it is not a mandated service,” he added. “When you look at rural areas across Texas, if it wasn’t for the county Extension offices, there would not be other comparable service providers there to fill the knowledge and information gap. In urban areas that may have non-profits meeting some needs, Extension exists because of an investment of local, state and federal funding to make sure there isn’t redundancy. And also in urban areas, Extension isn’t peddling products, so we have a different motivation which is to provide educational programming that is unbiased to help people make better decisions based on individual need.”

He plans to remind state decision makers that Extension’s tie-in to the land-grant Texas A&M University System with divisions and campuses across the state and its ability to serve the public with research-based knowledge is “surpassed by nobody.”

“It’s going to be a real privilege to represent that message,” he said.

To hone his message, Steele said he is on a listening campaign through the state for the remainder of the year. He’ll be gathering examples of the reliability, relevancy and timeliness of information the agency provides to people.

“I don’t know who Mr. Google is, but I know if you have a question, he’ll give you a half-million responses in less than a half second. But what is the quality and relevancy of that response?” Steele said. “For me, Extension employees are curators of information, not information managers. When someone asks us a question, it is filtered through researchers and Extension specialists so the person gets good information that helps them make better decisions — whether it is for families on health or finances, producers on their commodities, or young people developing leadership or citizenship skills.

“One of my core values is that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction we have in our network of specialists and county offices,” he added.

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