Leadership is a desirable attribute, but a tough one to define. There are several different ways to lead, and perhaps the most difficult part of being a leader is figuring out the best way to do so. But true leaders ultimately do find a way.
Some people are natural leaders. They were born with a special ability to charm or rally people behind them, no matter what they do. Others, well, they have to work at it. But there's no real secret to becoming a leader. There is no magic wand to wave. In fact, it comes differently to each individual. Sometimes, in the least expected ways.
For four University of Kentucky football players, their newfound leadership experiences came far, far away from Commonwealth Stadium. In fact, they became leaders in a land where football means soccer, and few people even know or care what the American variety is.
"It was a breath of fresh air," said sophomore defensive lineman Tristian Johnson. "To actually be away from the game of football and not be an SEC football player, a Kentucky football player or a college football player. Just a regular guy. American football is not even treated that much holy. It's all about fotbal, and that's soccer. To be around guys that treated just like you were a regular person was just a great relief."
Aaron Boyd, E.J. Fields, Trevino Woods, and Johnson (along with former Kentucky football player and current student assistant Glenn Holt) all had the opportunity of a lifetime to study abroad for more than two weeks in Central Europe this summer, and what they got out of it was much more valuable than a typical trip to Prague.
The course, which combined the four football players and Holt with nine other UK students, was designed to enhance students' emotional and cultural intelligence, improve their understanding of the costs of leadership and develop leadership skills to work with people from diverse backgrounds. "Leadership Lessons from Prague" was developed by Dr. Tricia Dyk, a professor in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, as a UK faculty-led Education Abroad course.
"We could have stayed at home and learned about change leadership, cultural differences and history," said Dr. Dyk, who spent months designing and recruiting students for the course that was being offered for the first time. "Instead, our students had the opportunity to meet world leaders, interact with international students and learn from the places they'd only read about or seen in movies. It was exciting to watch them absorb the lessons from historical Prague, develop their cultural intelligence and grow as leaders."
While each player felt he gained something different, they came home with a better sense of what it takes to be leaders - both on and off the football field - and having learned valuable lessons to be carried throughout the rest of their lives.
The experience began with a slight shift for the four Wildcats accustomed to being identified as football players before anything else. They were visitors; aliens in a strange land. They were on equal footing with their fellow students, all in similar fish-out-of-water situations. They had made it to Prague, Czech Republic, a place that maybe only one of them had even had designs on potentially visiting before the opportunity to take this trip presented itself.
Boyd, however, was the one player who had hoped for a long time that he would have the opportunity to travel the world.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," said Boyd. "Especially with my major, International Studies, and my concentration is European studies. I've always wanted to travel one day when football's over, and just travel the world and things like that."
This was an opportunity for these players to see things differently. To get out of their comfort zone, live in a foreign place, and come back with new ideas, concepts, and feelings about their own lives and the lives of others all over the world.
This trip made a long-lasting impact on these young men.
"There's different cultures, different traditions everywhere," said Boyd. "Their country went through a lot, the country itself went through a lot going through communism. There's just different ways they go about things. They're really to themselves, they aren't really social like we are. Just different things. You kind of grab hold to it once you see it. You get the vibes from people, they look at you a certain way. It's all about conforming to a new culture and learning how to use your survival skills to survive in a different country."
As they explored Prague, the players began to recognize some landmarks they had seen in movies and television, but they also were consumed by the culture and history surrounding them. The historical perspective they gained may have been the most jarring of anything they experienced during their 15-day cultural immersion.
Fields was taken aback when their tour took them to the Terezin, the site of a concentration camp in the Czech Republic that he had never known existed.
"Going to Terezin was a real eye opener, especially after we had been to a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague," said Fields. "They had all the names of all the Jews that were murdered up on the wall. It almost brought me to tears. It was a different feeling. Learning about the Holocaust is one thing, but actually being in that situation where it happened right there was just a completely different feeling."
Fields, who hails from Frankfort, Ky., had never done much traveling even inside the United States, really seemed to enjoy the culture, even if it was much different than the one he was used to. He said he felt like he was back in the Middle Ages with castles surrounding him and horses running around. Then he was instantly reminded that Prague has a very modern side when he was constantly dodging cars as he crossed the roads.
One thing Johnson regrets, however, is not immersing himself even more into that culture to enhance his experience. Even though he was in a different country, and completely different culture, he found himself speaking way more English than he thought he should have.
As they made a visit to Olomouc, the sixth-largest city in eastern Czech Republic, they met Czech students learning English at Palacky University, and they exchanged similarities and differences between their native languages. Still, Johnson wishes he had learned more from those students about their language.
"That's one thing I regret most about that trip is I didn't take time to learn Czech," said Johnson. "I had a little cheat sheet, but it was a little, simple cheat sheet like 'hello', 'how are you doing?', 'thank you.' And I only remember one thing, dekuji, and that's Czech for 'thank you.' And I always find myself apologizing because I made them speak English in their own country, instead of just trying to adapt to their culture by making my experience better and just learning their language. So that's one thing I do regret."
But language was only the most obvious barrier the students faced when they arrived. One of the first activities the class focused on was a scavenger hunt designed to quickly familiarize them with navigating Prague's tram and metro system. Dr. Dyk divided the students into small groups, and it was up to them to communicate with Czechs as they performed information-gathering tasks at the dozen places they needed to find.
The assignment required strategy, teamwork, and most importantly leadership. It was clearly a successful exercise that required this newly formed group of people to get to know each other as well as join forces to attack a common goal.
With brand new acquaintances, people with different ideas, and a language barrier, among several other variables, the group activities were no simple tasks.
"I learned a good bit from it. Especially patience," said Woods. "Because there were two days when I was designated to be a leader. The first day it went kind of smooth because it was earlier and everyone was still getting to know each other. So it was pretty easy. But by the second week, we were more together, but people had their own ideas and thought they knew what they were doing, and we'd get to the train station, and people had different opinions. So it was frustrating, and it teaches you to have patience and to listen."
There may have been disagreements in how to attack some of the assignments from the course, but the spirit of teamwork engendered by those challenges quickly turned the 14 students into a group that functioned as one.
"It was because of the nature of the tasks that were designed for each one of them, in turn, to step up as a leader of the group and work together and it was in everyone's common interest to succeed that they got to know each other," Dr. Dyk said. "They hung out together in the evenings. They sat around and talked. It was a very cohesive group of people."
Split up into three groups, students took turns serving as team leaders. Serving in that capacity, each of the students got firsthand insight into what leadership is all about. Woods, who is heading into his senior season, figures the qualities he practiced will translate in his final season at Kentucky and later into whatever professional career path he chooses.
"Eventually I hope to be somewhere up in a company," said Woods. "I want to eventually make more money and move up in the ranks. You have to learn how to work with people, and learn how to still learn if you're climbing. Leaders learn also, even if you are under them."
And with regards to the upcoming season, Woods has found a new outlook that he would not have previously held before taking this trip.
"On the football field, for example, I'm a senior," said Woods. "And if a freshman comes in and there is a skill or a certain thing about a play that I don't understand, maybe he understands it. Or maybe a sophomore, or somebody else. Somebody that's lower ranked. If they understand it and I don't, me being a senior would say, 'I don't have to listen to you. I'm older, I've been here longer. There's no way you know.' But just having that patience and being able to listen can go a long way."
While Woods approach was to always listen to others, Fields learned to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of others, while appreciating what people bring to the table to reach their goals.
"You can definitely apply them to the football field and in life, because like I said before, everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. Everybody has something that there not as good at as somebody else. And if you're in the leadership role, you need to make sure you get to know everybody following you so that everybody can build off their strengths and weaknesses and work towards that common goal."
As these players look back at this once in a lifetime experience, they realize how special it was to share these experiences with one another. With all of the things they share on the football field, this is a special moment in their lives that they will remember forever.
"My teammates can find the most things in common with me because we wake up together at six o'clock in the morning, we come back again at three o'clock in the afternoon when it's the hottest part of the day," said Johnson. "So these are the guys that do the same things that I do. To see guys on this team that are just like me, and they see that I could do something outside of the country."
The trip was not just about these four players. And they know that. They recognize that it is their responsibility to share their experiences with their teammates to help make this a better team. With their great privilege, they now get those put the many things they've learned into practice.
While the trip is over, these brand new leaders are just starting on their path to become better teammates, students and citizens, sharing their knowledge and skills to all that they may come in contact with along the way.
"Be open to more things," said Boyd. "Never judge a book by its cover. Never be shy too speak up, or make new friends, or just try new things. Everybody's trying to live life to its fullest, I believe. I'm just trying to bring that here, tell the guys there's more to life than just football."