Rik Barrera, assistant dean for business and chief operating officer at the College of Business Administration, defines his success by whether he makes the organization he serves better. That attitude and sense of service gets conveyed each year to freshmen and junior students, as Barrera teaches leadership classes at the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Barrera’s passion for leadership emerged early in life, watching his father serve as a sergeant in the U.S. military. He observed his father give back to the country that provided opportunities for a man from a poor family in South Texas.
“My father left an impression on me to serve my country,” said Barrera. “When I got in the military, I thrived. I spent 21 years leading combat teams, staff organizations and commanding units in the U.S. Army. I studied under leaders who became four-star generals and corporate leaders. I share my experience with students today.”
His experience includes studying strengths long before he came to CBA in 2011. CBA uses strengths-based science to help build their leadership teams since 2015.
“I was on the ground floor of the strengths-based movement and introduced strengths in my previous job in the Beadle Center at Nebraska. In the Raikes leadership class, I introduce strengths and let students decipher the meaning by identifying strengths in themselves and others. My main message is everyone becomes a leader at some point, whether in your family, a company or another team setting. I believe students appreciate the real-world examples I bring from my experiences showing how to apply strengths in specific situations,” he said.
Students also study great historical teams in sports, the military and corporations in Barrera’s class. They analyze what led to team successes in the context of strengths.
“Every team has a leader whether chosen or not,” said Barrera. “We look at who became the designated leader but then examine who emerged as the real leader. It opens their eyes because most students haven’t been in an environment studying leadership dynamics.”
Junior students apply what they learn in design studio teams, which work with clients from the local community to design and implement technology solutions to modern business problems. Many see themselves as the next Bill Gates according to Barrera, but he impresses the significance of leadership and team building as part of every solution.
“All Raikes students either major in business and minor in computer science, or major in computer science and minor in business. They may know something about developing a great app, but I stress the ability to communicate ideas effectively in eight minutes. That is about all the time you get when presenting to a leader of a company. By understanding strengths, students build leadership qualities and make more effective presentations,” he said.
Barrera continues to expand his teaching in leadership and strengths through the Executive Education program at CBA. On Wednesday, March 1, he presents “Business at War: Management Lessons from the Military” at a power lunch
at the Wilderness Ridge Golf Club in Lincoln from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. The topic is an extension of his teaching when he originally joined Nebraska as part of the military to run the ROTC program in 1994.
One common theme runs through his tenure at Nebraska and CBA.
“The best leaders tell you it’s about the people,” said Barrera. “At CBA, we talk about that all the time. We create great programs and we do it by having the right people running them. The people are what brought me to CBA. We continue to excel and as we move into our new building I see us strengthening our foundation. That’s what excites me about coming to work and tells me I have a good job.”