Natural-born leader: Deon Legette’s inspirational PLI journey

March 12, 2019

By Cole Little, University Relations

While Deon Legette has always portrayed leadership qualities, the President’s Leadership Institute (PLI) helped her refine them. She used what she learned to help others refine theirs.

What constitutes being a leader? That longstanding question brings with it several different possibilities for answers, each subject to individual interpretation. An indisputable characteristic of leaders, however, is their willingness to take on the onus of effecting change, and a graduate of the President’s Leadership Institute at Clemson University is doing just that through her own leadership initiatives.

Inspired by what she experienced while enrolled in the President’s Leadership Institute (PLI), Midlands District Extension Director Deon Legette designed a leadership program that is molded to fit the leadership needs of those working for Clemson’s Cooperative Extension. Legette is a 2018 alumna of PLI, which is in session from August to May of each year, and, upon evaluating the dividends that a leadership initiative could pay to the Extension, she put her PLI tutelage to good use by fostering the implementation of the Extension’s Emergent Leadership Program.

Speaking on her inspiration for spearheading the formation of such a program, Legette cited PLI, saying, “President Clements asked the participants in the class what their PLI legacies would be, and I thought that it would great for me to provide the Extension with a program similar to PLI.”

The PLI is a nine-month leadership development program that was instituted by President Jim Clements in the fall of 2016 as an effective way to disseminate leadership skills throughout the university’s workforce. The cohort for each session consists of 25 Clemson University faculty and staff members who are nominated to participate by university leadership. Centered upon the development of professional and personal leadership within the diverse community of faculty and staff at Clemson University, PLI uses monthly meetings, personality assessments, off-campus retreats and team-oriented exercises to promote the individual effectiveness, communication skills and critical-thinking abilities of the participants.

The program is led by President Clements and two integral members of his staff, Chief of Staff Max Allen and President’s Leadership and Strategic Initiatives Director Kyra Lobbins, and, thanks in large part to their guidance, the fairly young program has already produced numerous success stories. One such success story is Legette, who considers her choice to participate in the President’s Leadership Institute after being nominated for membership, to be one of the best professional decisions that she has made during her 28-year career with Clemson University.

“For me, the President’s Leadership Institute was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my Extension career,” Legette said. “It was truly life-changing for me.”

Although the humble Legette may not admit it, she is a natural-born leader, and her impeccable work ethic and passion for inspiring others serve as staples of her life. Agriculture has been Legette’s passion from the get-go, with the journey to becoming an Extension leader beginning with her childhood spent in rural Marion, South Carolina, which included dedicated involvement with 4-H. The agrarian upbringing for Legette also included being raised by a pair of teachers as the oldest of three siblings.

With educators for parents and two younger brothers to keep in line, Legette came by leadership naturally. Her proclivity for involvement and taking on new challenges made Legette the perfect candidate for PLI, and her participation in the program proved to be especially fruitful.

“I learned so many new things,” Legette said of her PLI involvement. “I learned about myself through the personality assessments, and I learned that it’s important to embrace the differences in people. I also learned to listen more as a supervisor.”

Learning, developing and leading are the central tenets of the PLI, and Legette has epitomized all three throughout her career. In fact, Legette’s brainchild, the Emergent Leadership Program, represents a culmination of the impactful learning and developing that she received through the PLI experience and epitomizes how it has empowered her to pave the way for new leadership opportunities.

When discussing the positive impacts that PLI had on her, Legette said, “The things that you learn in the President’s Leadership Institute will last forever. For example, we had to journal, which is something that I had never done before, and I now carry that journal with me everywhere I go.”

From journaling to team building and a variety of other leadership initiatives, the President’s Leadership Institute offers a wide array of worthwhile endeavors that mesh with the interests and skillsets of Clemson’s faculty and staff. PLI is an all-encompassing personal-development program that is broadening the perspectives of its participants and creating gateways for trailblazers such as Legette to enact their leadership skills for the betterment of themselves and those around them. More importantly, in its two-and-a-half-year existence, PLI has strengthened the camaraderie uniting the Clemson family, forging inseparable bonds between its alumni.

“One of the benefits of the President’s Leadership Institute is it creates a family,” Legette said. “Of the 25 members in my PLI cohort, I continue to communicate with all of them on a regular basis.”

Legette and her cohort visited a number of Clemson facilities, including CU-ICAR in Greenville and CURI in Charleston over the course of their PLI experience. They were given a tour of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, a trip that allowed them to see President Clements in action during a hearing. By observing, firsthand, these varying forms of leadership, such as the innovative orchestration of CU-ICAR and the bureaucratic governance of the South Carolina legislature, the PLI members gleaned ample influence and inspiration.

Seventy-two percent of participants in the inaugural PLI group have gone on to either earn new jobs, promotions or garner added responsibilities in their existing positions. Furthermore, five of the 25 members from Legette’s 2017-2018 class have already secured some form of career advancement. As evidenced by those figures and the testimonies of enthusiastic PLI graduates, participation in the life-altering program is worth its weight in gold.

Legette has advice for those who are nominated to the program.

“Accept it,” she said with a smile. “I was reluctant at first because of the travel time, but when I first walked into the room, the passion and motivation that came from President Clements and the others involved were remarkable. That helped convince me that PLI is definitely a program worth participating in.”

Legette may be an agriculture enthusiast, but she has never been one to let grass grow under her feet. Therefore, she wasted no time in carrying forth the PLI legacy and extending it to her Extension compatriots. The Extension’s Emergent Leadership Program was launched this past November, just six months after Legette completed her PLI training, and boasts an inaugural cohort of 19 Extension agents and staff. By serving as the director of the program, Legette is answering the call to establish her own PLI legacy, which has made President Clements and the other members of the PLI family very proud.

“I think it is awesome that Deon was so inspired by her PLI experience that she created a program for her colleagues in Extension,” Clements said. “One of my goals in starting PLI was for people to take what they learned and apply it in their jobs every day. What better way to do that than to help teach your colleagues about leadership.”

Seven lessons of basic leadership skills comprise the program’s curriculum, which is divided into two levels of leadership training. The first level pertains to the learning of basic leadership and communication skills through personality assessments, integrity evaluations and team-building exercises. Upon completion of level one, the participants are then able to advance to the second level of the program, which is centered upon practical application of the newfound leadership prowess through involvement in internships and case studies. Much like she witnessed within the ranks of her PLI cohort, Legette has noticed considerable increases in interaction and collaboration from the initial Emergent Leadership Program class.

“I’ve seen them grow,” Legette said of the 19 participants in her groundbreaking program. “I’ve seen them come out their shells. They’re eager to learn, and they want to apply the leadership skills that they’ve developed.”

Legette is certainly living up to her reputation as an active, conscientious participant in the President’s Leadership Institute, and, thanks to her ingenuity and desire to increase the breadth of PLI’s impact, the Clemson University Cooperate Extension is reaping the benefits of President Clements’ one-of-a-kind program. Still in its infancy, the Extension’s Emergent Leadership Program is quickly making waves that are symbolic of the ripple effect incited by Legette’s learning and developing in PLI, which led to her yearning to branch out and lead others in a similar capacity.

The President’s Leadership Institute is doing much more than promoting leadership qualities in the Clemson University workforce; it is also providing pioneers like Deon with the platforms necessary of making the world a better place. Society could undoubtedly benefit from having more innovators like those being produced by PLI. After all, the call for effecting change can be heard far and wide, and natural-born leaders like Deon Legette are always willing to answer.

“I want to help people understand that leadership is not a position, and it is not about the individual person who is the leader,” said Clements. “Leadership is about action, and it is about serving others. I want faculty and staff to explore how they can be leaders who make a difference in the lives of others, both in their daily jobs but also in other aspects of their lives.”

Learn more about the PLI here.