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UTSW Pride Month speaker shares personal story on lessons to inspire excellence

Man in blue and gray plaid suit with hands raised in the air.
As keynote speaker for the Pride Month Signature Event in June, UTSW Chief Information Officer Russell Poole spoke about leadership lessons he learned growing up and throughout his career.

For a boy growing up gay on a cattle ranch in southeast Florida, his father might not seem his most likely hero. But when UT Southwestern Chief Information Officer Russell Poole was in his 20s, two incidents with his dad taught him an important lesson.

The first was an event he called “My Dad vs. the Steer.”

Mr. Poole and his brothers were loading cattle onto a truck to help their father, who at the time was recovering from triple bypass surgery. A half-ton steer kept getting away, so he told his sons to get out of the way. His dad approached the animal and convinced it to cooperate. The beast backed up onto the truck.

The second incident was “The Phone Call.”

In his late 20s, Mr. Poole came out about being gay in phone calls with his mother, brothers, and sister one evening, but not with his father. Then his father called him at 7 the next morning and talked about the farm, the cattle, and other everyday things.

After talking for an hour, his dad told him, “I want you to know there’s nothing wrong with my boy.”

“Twice, I underestimated my father,” said Mr. Poole, now age 52. The lesson: “Never underestimate anyone.”

In a fireside chat, Mr. Poole (left) in blue and gray plaid shirt, talks with, hared with Timothy Blackburn, Ph.D., Professor of Radiology, gray-haired man in white shirt.
In a fireside chat, Mr. Poole (left) shared with Timothy Blackburn, Ph.D., Professor of Radiology, and the audience about how to be an ally to the LBGTQ+ community.

He shared these stories and leadership lessons in the UT Southwestern Pride Month Signature Event, “Pride in Leadership.”

“As a gay man, I’ve never talked in front of a group about leadership and shared my story,” said Mr. Poole, also Vice President of Information Resources.

He talked about growing up in Belle Glade, a small farming town in southeast Florida, and described the stages of his life as “blissful,” “different,” “epiphany,” “guarded,” and filled with “acceptance.”

His father was the earliest source of these lessons, including the next: “Pick up the trash,” which he recalled his dad saying when they were walking in the yard together once. His dad pointed out garbage, and asked, “You can’t see that it needs to be picked up? Have a little pride in what’s yours.”

“I tell my teams that if you see a problem, don’t wait for me to tell you there’s one,” Mr. Poole said. “Take the initiative to solve it.”

The third lesson came from being a child in the 1980s, when AIDS was first identified. In 1985, his small hometown had the highest rate of AIDS in the nation, with 37 cases in a population of 20,000 – 51 times higher than the national average at the time.

“It pushed me deeper into my guarded phase,” he said. “I thought I was going to breathe and catch AIDS. Yet as slow as it took to get treatments, and as high as the mortality has been, “there’s always a solution,” he said. 

Mr. Poole came across lesson number four, the best leaders are self-aware, when he developed a group of friends who supported him, reinforced that he had value, and taught him to say the hardest words: “I’m gay.”

Self-awareness is the first step in emotional intelligence, which is vital for leadership, he said. Which led to his final lesson – be a role model – from when he was Chief Information Officer for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where he had moved to be with his husband, whom he married in 2018.

Mr. Poole said he hadn’t come out as a gay man at work, so he was worried when the Chief Business Officer, who was also gay with a husband, invited him to a fundraising event and said, “You will be there, and you will bring him!”

After having a good time at the event, Mr. Poole learned he could be fully himself on the job, “because of his unwillingness to let me be in that guarded state at work,” he said.

What he took from that episode was to “embrace your responsibility to inspire others,” Mr. Poole said.

During a question-and-answer session following the talk, Mr. Poole was asked advice for those who wish to be allies. He said that when he applied to work at UT Southwestern, an administrator asked him if there was anything he wanted to share in advance of a thorough background check. Mr. Poole then asked if there would be any problem that he was married to a man.

“The administrator chuckled and said, ‘Is that all you’ve got?’” Mr. Poole recalled. “It gives me hope.”

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