2018 Top 50 Undergraduate Professors: Mary Uhl-Bien, Texas Christian University (Neeley)

Mary Uhl-Bien

Professor of Management

Texas Christian University, Neeley School of Business

Mary Uhl-Bien is an award-winning professor focusing on leadership theories, organizational behavior, and management. The professor of management currently holds the BNSF Endowed Professor of Leadership at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business, where she has been for more than four years. She has been a professor since 1991 when she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business.

Uhl-Bien teaches across undergraduate, graduate, and executive education programs at the Neeley school and is now focusing her research and teaching on how leaders and organizations can become increasingly adaptive in a business world that is constantly changing and evolving. “My most exciting discovery is the nature of the adaptive process and how leaders can foster it at all levels—individual, group, organizational and societal—to generate the adaptability needed to survive and thrive in a complex world,” Uhl-Bien says of her research.

Outside of the classroom, Uhl-Bien says she likes to spend her time with family, gardening, traveling, and spending time outdoors. Her favorite show is Breaking Bad and her favorite musical artist is Coldplay.

Education: PhD in Organizational Behavior, University of Cincinnati

At current institution since: 2014

List of courses you currently teach: Leading in a Complex World to undergrads and grads, Business Ethics to MBA students, and Exec Ed programs on Leadership for Adaptability

Twitter handle: @MaryUhlBien

What professional achievement are you most proud of? Being able to develop research-practice partnerships to understand how leadership works in the “real world” and then bringing that learning into the classroom.

“I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when…” I always gravitated toward teaching and learning, but really didn’t think about academia until I was recruited into a doctoral program by one of the professors I had as a business undergrad at the University of Cincinnati.

“One word that describes my first time teaching…” Scary

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? The world is changing in unbelievable ways and at a rapid pace, but organizations and leaders are not equipped to deal with it. Seeing the change coming, my research sets out to understand how leaders can enable people and organizations to be more adaptive. My most exciting discovery is the nature of the adaptive process and how leaders can foster it at all levels—individual, group, organizational and societal—to generate the adaptability needed to survive and thrive in a complex world.

What is your most memorable moment as a professor? The time I came into the classroom and my undergrad students told me they wanted to lead a discussion of topics they had seen in the news about course material. It meant they had fully embraced the material and owned their learning.

Since you first started teaching, how has business education changed? The focus on internships, online learning platforms, better availability of cases and simulations, and whiteboards instead of chalkboards.   

“If I weren’t a business school professor, I would be…” A foreign diplomat

“Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a professor”: How much you would grow and develop over a lifetime from the opportunity to work with and teach so many fascinating students.

Name of the professor you most admire and why: Dr. Greg Stephens, my colleague who runs TCU’s undergraduate BNSF Neeley Leadership program. The way he lives his values of knowing and being true to yourself while giving so deeply and unselfishly to others is a constant source of inspiration to me.

What do you enjoy most about teaching undergraduate business students? They keep things real for me. Many times graduates or executives lose perspective in the business mindset and take certain things for granted. Undergraduate students question in ways that keep me on my toes. I can’t get away with things with them—I have to engage on their level, which requires changing more often than I need to for grads or execs.

What’s the biggest challenge? Being on their level. The challenge is getting them to want to learn rather than just complete a course. To accomplish that you have to continually stretch to meet them where they are. That’s not always easy.

What is the most impressive thing one of your undergraduate students has done? Told me that despite the fact that he got a B in my class and that it was the grade he deserved, it was one of the best experiences he ever had. That happened in my first years of teaching and stuck with me ever since. I was motivated by him to focus on learning and not worry about what students might think of me if they did not receive an A.

What is the least favorite thing one has done? Demonstrated by their behavior at the end of the course (complaining about grades) that they hadn’t listened to or learned anything we said in the classroom about how to approach such a situation.

Since you’ve been teaching, how have students changed over the years? They know so much more coming into the classroom than they did when I first started teaching. They also have shorter attention spans (as do I!) and are less likely to read and prep material unless you have an assignment tied to it.

What does a student need to do to get an A in your class? Demonstrate superior insight and learning.

“When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as …” Focused on their learning.

If your teaching style/classroom experience had a theme song, what would it be? Head Full of Dreams (Coldplay)

Using just one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

Using just one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Grade-obsessed

“If my students can think and learn while being good citizens in their organizations and the world, then I’ve done my job as their professor.”

Fun fact about yourself: My first job was at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and my first two children were born there.

What are your hobbies? Outdoors, gardening, travel. (And can I say family is a hobby? It is what I do in my free time!)

How did you spend your summer? Doing research, as well as giving talks and executive workshops on strategy and leadership development for the Episcopal Bishops, Bosch North America, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, and the Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa.

Favorite place to vacation: Anywhere there is a nice beach and/or beautiful blue skies

Favorite book: The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Favorite movie and/or television show: Breaking Bad

Favorite type of music and/or favorite artist: Coldplay

Bucket list item #1: Skydiving

What’s the biggest challenge facing business education at the moment? Curricula that can become quickly outdated in a rapidly changing world.

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this…” More interdisciplinary and team teaching.

“And much less of this…” Professors focusing on what they want to teach rather than what students need to learn.

Looking ahead 10 years from now, describe what “success” would be like for you: I would have published several books and written more articles advancing research on complexity leadership and followership.