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Liberal Arts Education & Leadership Development:

Interview with Erin Roberts


Shelly Gordon, Alejandro Cabezut, and Andrea Medina
Trinity University

























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Abstract

The research our group conducted during our alumni interview set out to discover how
leadership development is cultivated at liberal arts institutions, specifically with an education at
Trinity University. Our group had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Roberts, who currently
works for Coca Cola as a Human Resources Administrator, and who taught us much about her
journey in becoming a self-driven and environmentally flexible leader. The precise research
question that we investigated through this interview is as follows: To what extent does the
breadth of a liberal arts education facilitate being flexible as a leader in the workplace?. Results
from the interview revealed much about the leadership styles of various individuals outside of
institutions of higher education, and gave us insight into how leadership development is a
process that deals with both the traits of the individual and the situation at hand. A supplemental
article suggests that leadership education in higher education must be a priority to ensure that
graduates are equipped to be true leaders in their field. Throughout the interview, Roberts indeed
confirmed that the educational environment at Trinity University provided her with the
knowledge to, as she puts, Learn to Learn, or be able and willing to learn and adapt as a leader
in the workplace with any given situation.
In addition to this summary, there is a literary article from the Academy of Economic
Studies calls for institutions of higher education that looks closely at their curriculum and start
prioritizing courses and programs that foster leadership development. Although most universities
do have leadership programs and events, this article argues that in order to ensure that students
graduate prepared to be bold and influential leaders of their field, all students need to be
presented with some sort of formal leadership training (Nica, 2013). In the special cases of small
liberal arts institutions, such as Trinity University, we believe that such leadership development
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is currently being fostered and promotes the development of flexible and adaptable leaders in the
workplace. Our interview with Erin Roberts proves the idea of situational leadership because of
our main hypothesis that liberal arts students would be able to adapt to different leadership
opportunities confidently and quickly compared to those who have not been exposed to more
collaborative environments that force you out of your comfort zone. In addition to this situational
perspective, it is also important to discuss the inherent traits and habits of the individual leader
themselves. During the interview, Roberts continued to emphasize that her drive and passion to
create opportunities for herself was developed at a young age. Being surrounded by the example
of her parents, and being able to work alongside them at her first job at the age of fourteen also
played a huge part in transforming her into the leader she is today. This speaks a lot to her
personal traits, as well as the importance of relational leadership in regards to her parents leading
the way and setting an ideal example for her.

Keywords: Leadership, Higher Education, Situational Leadership, Traits Leadership, Virtual
Leadership










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Method
The leadership interview with Erin Roberts took on many different styles and structures.
Beginning with a few warm-up questions for Mrs. Roberts, she briefly described her job as a
Human Relations analyst in the Coca Cola Company with whom she has been working for over a
decade and a half. During her time at Trinity, Mrs. Roberts first dabbled in education but
ultimately decided to focus on business courses and business management. Although she was not
heavily involved on campus, she was a member of the Zeta Chi sorority during her time as a
student. After graduation, Mrs. Roberts found herself as an intern for Frost Bank as an
accountant and stayed there through grad school. Although she did not like her job at Frost, she
stated it was a learning experience, for it taught [her] what [she] did not want to do. After
receiving her MBA from UTSA, she went in to work in HEB as a construction assistant,
ensuring the trains were running on time. Although not ultimately staying there, she did suggest
that her jobs at Frost and HEB helped her learn how to learn, or simply be more practical.
Beginning as a Coca-Cola secretary during grad school, Mrs. Robertss career in
the company has included ten leaders and seven different teams reporting to her. After being
asked if she thought education was a big indicator or influence in performance standards of
herself and employees, she responded with an ambiguous not necessarily. Reigning in her
argument by recalling that she started working at fourteen in an accounting firm, Mrs. Roberts
suggested that the true way to excel in a job is by learning how to interact with others and not
being afraid to go to managers with problems and solutions, which she facilitates by shaping how
her leaders and teams report to her. Because she doesnt have all the answers and no one has all
the answers, a holistic group effort always prevails with a superior response. She strongly
believes that although leaders can facilitate talking through a problem, they must give initiative
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for others to also provide input, thus empowering them and also not reprimanding if mistakes are
made, for that is how experience is garnered.
Results
We were able to learn from Erin that the four approaches to leadership, trait, functional,
situational, and relational, are best achieved through experience. Erin expressed the importance
of presenting ones self as a leader. She discussed how that that trait come from within
(Hollander & Offermann, 1990). One question asked of Erin was if she saw a difference in the
leadership strength of those who attended an American university, which tends to provide a
broader education, and a European university, who receive a more focused training. Erin said
that she did not see a difference based on origin, but from her employees personalities. Even
Erin said she did not get her sense of leadership from her Trinity experience, but from her
extensive work experience starting at the age of fourteen. During the interview Erin did not focus
a lot on being a leader on the functional level, but she did imply how it is important for
employees to know what they are doing and not be afraid to ask questions (Hollander &
Offermann, 1990). It is very common for Erin to go to the Coca-Cola offices in London or
Atlanta to teach her staff how to perform their jobs and daily tasks. Since she is not in Atlanta or
London permanently, she depends on her staff to communicate with her via technology as much
as possible. Erin discussed the importance of maintaining positive relationships with her
employees so that she can trust them and they feel comfortable confiding in her (Hollander &
Offermann, 1990). She makes herself available to her employees by using many technological
channels. The one approach that Erin is confident she gained from Trinity was situational
leadership because she was able to experience so many different disciplines (Hollander &
Offermann, 1990). Erin expressed that Trinity taught her how to learn. The unique variety of
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classes and opportunities Erin participated in at Trinity helped her learn how to adapt to different
situations.
Since she works online, Mrs. Roberts holds in high regard a cohesive, diverse group. She
believes this symbiosis promotes collaboration and creativity. Just like in a liberal arts education,
diversity is advantageous. Her experiences in business group courses at Trinity helped her
recognize the need for positive, effective communication. Although she does not readily
remember her career at Trinity, Mrs. Roberts believes what the institution taught her best to do is
to learn how to learn. By being exposed to multiple disciplines in the classroom, she learned to
take on new challenges and experiences freshly and be able to learn from them. By not being
intimidated by the unknown, new, possibly effective, ways of responding to problems can arise..
She breaks down possible barriers and obstacles that might arise for them and also provides
direction when needed. Through this, people are promoted to take initiative and fuel their drive.
Another huge theory and method of leadership discussed during the interview was on the
topic of virtual leadership. Roberts manages an international team based in London from her
home located right here in San Antonio, Texas. She left college right about when email began to
get popular, and had to use her philosophy of learning how to learn to fully utilize the many
resources that make her job possible today. She was able to adapt to all of the technological
changes that came with the passage of time, which allowed her to work from home and manage a
team of about six others internationally. Honing in on computer mediated communication skills
and understanding the dynamics between virtual textual exchanges allowed Roberts to become a
better communicator, which is why she credits learning how to learn the best way to become
an effective leader.


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Discussion
Liberal arts universities effectiveness on leadership was evaluated through the life
experiences of Erin Roberts. We found that any college education helps increase a persons
leadership abilities, but is not the defining requirement to gain this skill. Erin emphasized the
importance of experience, which school like Trinity University provide inside and outside the
classroom. Erin informed us that a combination of academic and work experience can help
facilitate the growth of the four approaches to leadership.
Erins interview provided insight about leadership on a personal and a general level.
Erins career requires her to have precise communication skills because she uses different
internet services to work her employees, as opposed to in-person conversations or phone calls.
Her language has to be specific because she could be perceived as being rude or informal
otherwise. She also depends on her virtual communication as a way to gain leadership authority
from her employees. Erin would otherwise not be informed of their activities or skills if she did
not use her communication resources. On a general level, Erin taught us the importance of
communicating with others frequently to help increase the cohesiveness and understanding
between the group. The best example Erin gave us was from her first job at an accounting firm.
When Erin approached her boss with a problem, her boss told her to always come with possible
solutions to the situation because her boss did not always have the answer to every question. Erin
uses this lesson with her employees so that they are always generating and resolving problems as
teams, not as an authority figure. Erin never came to this conclusion at the interview, but her first
job gave her transformational leadership by empowering her to think on her own and
encouraging others to do so.


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Conclusion
The current study investigated the extent to which how the breadth of a liberal arts
education facilitates being flexible as a leader in the workplace. Ideally, a liberal arts education
should provide experience to all four types of leadership approaches. Within the large variety of
educational and extracurricular opportunities provided in a small environment, trait, functional,
relational, and situational approaches to leadership should be facilitated in practiced. Since there
is no empirical evidence proving that the hypothesis is true, students from the Effective
Leadership and Communication course at Trinity University decided to investigate the
possibility. The students interviewed Erin Roberts to investigate the possibility. From Erins
personal experiences, we discovered that having an expertise in the four approaches is necessary
for having a successful career, but is not necessarily gained from having a liberal arts education.
Erin taught us that any form of higher education teaches people how to learn in the future
situations that you will partake in.
Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Erin Roberts for allowing us to interview her. Jaime Thompson also
deserves praise for assisting us with project.








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References
Nica, Elvira. (2013). The Importance of Leadership Development Within Higher
Education. Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 5(2), 189-194. Retrieved
from http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=64c2ba58-a343-417e-
b022- 1786049e509d%40sessionmgr4002&vid=4&hid=41
Hollander, E.P., & Offermann, L.R. (1990). Power and leadership in organizations:
Relationships in transition. American Psychologist, 45(2), 179.