Learning to Lead

Before anyone can lead others, they first have to lead themselves. That’s something Rob Siegfried, BE81, believes in strongly.

“Too often, people look for leadership in the wrong places,” says Rob. “Leadership isn’t about being a CEO, it isn’t something learned once and it certainly doesn’t start with leading others. It starts with the individual developing and strengthening their character ethic. If someone knows how to be more individually accountable and responsible for themselves, if they know how to be more persevering, disciplined, loving and kind, then they are on their way to becoming a better leader—for themselves and others.”

Rob’s non-traditional philosophy on leadership focuses first and foremost on the development of oneself, even on what might seem like the smallest tasks and traits.

As Rob further explains, “You’re more empowered to lead others when you can effectively lead yourself. Leadership is getting to bed on time and getting enough sleep. Leadership is eating well and staying fit. Leadership is being grounded and compassionate. Leadership is those character ethic traits and habits that make you more successful for yourself and everyone around you.”

Rob learned about motivation and hard work early in life—and it was reinforced during his time earning degrees in both economics and accounting—but it wasn’t until later that he realized he could use his own personal beliefs to help others become better leaders themselves, and thus transform their own lives.

Through the Siegfried Group, LLP, which he founded with his wife, Kathy, AS85, Rob has made it his life’s work to inspire transformation in others and to help people strengthen their own character ethic traits to become better leaders. This is often a lifetime journey and hard work.

“People need compelling dreams to have the motivation to find the commitment and courage needed to achieve their goals,” Rob points out. “This requires a transformative mindset and the ability to dream big—and to make sure that you are striving for the life you want to live, not just the life you should live.”

But dreams alone are not enough to ensure success, Rob says. Motivation, hard work and goals are needed as well.

“Our dreams are so important because I noticed that I could always find the necessary energy when I was reaching for something really important to me,” Rob continues. “Growing up, I knew that when I wasn’t interested in something, it was really hard to find the discipline and the energy to focus. Even better, I realized that when I was doing something that I enjoyed, it seemed almost effortless and I was more successful. Eventually, I realized that if you do something you love, you have this amazing, energized focus and courage, which best enables you to do whatever it takes to create both success and significance.”

Today, it is the Siegfrieds’ personal mission to encourage people to transform themselves into better individual leaders, exponentially improving their own lives and the lives of everyone around them. For the Siegfrieds, leadership is for everyone, including young people—students and young professionals—who are looking for guidance and making important decisions.

Through their philanthropy at the University of Delaware, Double Dels Rob and Kathy are helping future leaders learn and grow.

Among the youngest followers of the Siegfrieds’ leadership lessons are the local students who attend the biannual Siegfried Youth Leadership Program (SYLP), which was most recently held on campus on Feb. 27 at UD. Presented in collaboration with his company, The Siegfried Group, UD’s Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship  and Junior Achievement of Delaware, the SYLP serves hundreds of Delaware middle and high schoolers, as well as their teachers and mentors.

The conference aims to help youth in the community transform themselves into better individual leaders, so they are more equipped to navigate personal success and major life decisions now and in the future.

The fact that the Siegfrieds are both longtime Delawareans, who started their own company in Wilmington and connected at UD, is a huge source of inspiration for students, says Kelly Bench, AS06, a social studies teacher at Hodgson Vo-Tech who organizes regular trips to the SYLP. The program is immensely popular, she says, adding the limited spots available quickly fill up.

Not only do her students get a taste of what a college campus is like, but they also walk away feeling motivated to pursue ideas, join clubs, meet new people or, simply, speak up in class.

“Anybody can be a leader, that word is about you being in charge of where you want to go,” Bench says, echoing what her students learn during the program. “These conferences have really helped them understand how the little things they do can add up. I tell them all the time that they can make a difference.”

The youth participants can also continue their leadership growth as Blue Hens, as Rob and Kathy have established and supported a number of programs to encourage leadership education at UD. These programs include the Siegfried Initiative for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which established a leadership certification program, and the Siegfried Award for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which annually recognizes a person or group for their remarkable contributions to advancing entrepreneurial leadership, knowledge and practice.

These combined efforts create a continuum of leadership learning for students, where they can go on their own leadership journey as well as learn from others from all stages of life.

“Helping others through efforts like the leadership program and entrepreneurial initiative has led more people to realize their dreams and achieve personal success,” says Kathy. “It’s about education, providing opportunities and putting people in a better position of strength. Leadership is an important aspect of every job and role you hold in life.”

Dan Freeman, director of the Horn Entrepreneurship program—which helps bring the Siegfried leadership programming to students and professionals—says the opportunity to learn from practicing entrepreneurial leaders is invaluable. Students are able to learn from Rob’s own experience as an entrepreneur and leader.

“We’re so grateful to the Siegfrieds for all of their support,” Freeman says. “Ultimately, the impact that we can have in teaching entrepreneurial leadership is dependent on engaging alumni who have valuable experiences to share. You can learn a lot of from direct experience. Rob has spent a lifetime studying and trying to perfect his own leadership and has valuable lessons to share.”

The Siegfrieds’ philanthropy has brought growth and expansion to leadership studies across campus. One result is the popular “Individual Leadership: Building a Foundation for Success” undergraduate course taught by Tony Middlebrooks, an associate professor and director of Siegfried Leadership Initiative.

UD students studying leadership through the certificate program and other initiatives on campus have realized that with the knowledge and experience they gain a step up in almost any field they are interested in pursuing, Middlebrooks says. Through varied readings, experiential learning projects and guests, the leadership course teaches students how to learn from mistakes, develop routines and lead with competence and character.

“These students are searching for what they want to be and do,” Middlebrooks says. “One of the real strengths of this course is that it gives the students an opportunity to say, ‘OK, I don’t have to know exactly what I want to do. What I can do is find out who I am and what I bring to the table.’”

Middlebrooks began teaching the leadership course last fall and student interest remains high, especially since Rob visits with students twice a semester as a guest speaker. The class is also a prerequisite to apply for the recently created Siegfried Leadership Fellows Program, which will enable a select group of students to continue their leadership studies on campus.

“Thanks to Rob and Kathy, there are some really advantageous opportunities available to students to take their careers and studies to the next level. There are few places where students can access this combination of studies,” Middlebrooks says. “Leadership is a lifelong pursuit. If everyone could take a minute to think about how leadership has impacted them personally and remember that they too could have that impact on others, they will be more mindful and purposeful in their pursuits.”

For Rob Siegfried, a minute doesn’t seem to be nearly enough time to think about leadership. “What if we all took at least an hour each week to think about our individual leadership?” Rob asks, thinking back on lectures UD students hear in Middlebrooks’ class. “Leadership cannot be learned once. Leadership is constantly learned and developed over a lifetime.”

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