When the coronavirus first hit ACC last March, administrators gathered quickly to plot their course. In short order, they decided to move all classes online and ask students to immediately vacate residence halls.
Ryan Bilderback, who at the time served as the director of student life and supervised the dorms, remembers working through that process.
“The whole time, I was thinking, ‘This is leadership at its core,’” he said.
“We have a problem no one has ever faced before. There’s no manual. Everyone is working together to figure it out.”
Coincidentally, Bilderback knew Allen Community College also was putting the finishing touches on a new program that would set the course for his future, as well. He has left his previous position and will now be an instructor for the Leadership Studies program.
As it turned out, that experience in the early days of the pandemic provided a real-life lesson on the importance of leadership skills.
“It was really interesting to see that firsthand. How do leadership theories apply? How do you make decisions? How do you communicate? How do you work with other people?” Bilderback said.
“If you have a core foundation to know how to work with people, even if you don’t meet your goals and you’re only making progress, you’re still accomplishing something.”
LEADERSHIP means different things to different people, Bilderback said.
Think about leadership, and what typically pops into your mind is a vision of authority, someone at the front of the room or the office dictating a plan to others.
But leadership is more about mobilizing others, Bilderback said. It’s about understanding what people need and want, about learning to communicate and work with people who have different visions and desires. It’s about improving a business or a community. It’s about having an impact on someone’s life and teaching them how to lead.
“Not everyone is born with specific traits to be a leader, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn those traits,” Bilderback said. “Some people are more comfortable in a leadership position, and a lot of people work under leaders in a supportive role. That’s also a form of leadership. Anyone can learn to be a leader. Anyone can learn to function in a leadership realm.”
Leadership studies is a growing field in Kansas, Bilderback said.
ACC has been developing a program for about two years, and classes will transfer to four-year universities that offer similar programs.
The development process included conversations with ACC students, who shared their thoughts about the value of leadership skills.
“Students are looking at the world today, and the challenges, and they want to learn how to fit into that world. Through learning leadership skills, they can navigate that world,” Bilderback said.
“And I think students are interested in having a voice. The way the world is today, there are a lot of voices that are finally being heard. Through leadership courses, people can learn how to speak up and how to do that in a professional way.”
ACC’s program starts this fall with just one course, “Principles of Leadership,” that will be offered both in-person and online. In-person classes will practice social distancing measures. The class offers an introduction to leadership theories and an examination of personal strengths and styles that contribute to leadership.
Starting in the spring, ACC will add “Civic Leadership.” The class will encourage students to go into the community to analyze different models of civic leadership, such as participating in government meetings or community change projects.
In the fall of 2021, ACC will introduce two “Organizational Leadership” and “Ethics and Diversity in Leadership.” Students also can participate in internships, partnering with local businesses to learn about problem solving and communication skills in a professional setting.
“Part of leadership is mobilizing people to solve problems,” Bilderback said. “You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can work with people to solve a problem. Hopefully students will learn to define what leadership means to them, and if we can help them solve problems in the community or find a career, that’s a benefit.”
BILDERBACK attended Emporia State University, where he initially wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Instead, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and began a career in the mental health field. He worked five years at Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center before transitioning to ACC 14 years ago.
He earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Fort Hays State University in 2011.
He’s spent the past nine years as the director of student life. He also taught an eight-week online seminar, “College Career Success.”
He and his wife, Rebecca, who is the director of online learning at ACC, have lived in Iola for 15 years.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for me and for the college and for our students,” Bilderback said. “It’s a challenging time to build a new program, with the pandemic, but it’s exciting at the same time. Our administration has a good understanding of how leadership can positively affect our students in so many facets of their lives. I’m very excited about that.”