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Speaking the Language of Leadership

Distinguished Professor Bradley Kirkman is a leading expert in the field of leadership. His prolific work is as practical as it is visionary.

Headshot of Dr. Kirkman.
NC State's Bradley Kirkman is a researcher, author, teacher, speaker and former department head. He credits his success in part to his distinguished professorship. In 2022, Kirkman was elected a member of the Academy of Management Fellows, an honor reserved for the top 0.01% in his field.

Leaders surround us at all times. In many capacities, we ourselves hold leadership roles in varying degrees. But what does it take to be an effective leader? That’s a question Bradley Kirkman has sought to help others answer throughout his entire career. And today, his position as NC State’s General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership is helping him do it.

Kirkman is a faculty member (and former head) of the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Poole College of Management. He’s also one of two faculty advisors to one of NC State’s foremost programs for tomorrow’s leaders: the Shelton Leadership Center.

Woven throughout his prolific body of work, which includes helping lift NC State’s entrepreneurship efforts to renowned status and co-authoring two books, is the thread of his distinguished professorship, an honor and resource helping him teach his students — and others around the world — how to speak the language of leadership.

Rising Entrepreneurship

Kirkman arrived at NC State in 2012 to become the head of the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Over eight years in the role, he focused on advancing the entrepreneurship program, in particular by helping to hire key faculty members.

Kirkman teaches everyone from high schoolers to C-suite executives about leadership.

Early on in his tenure, he was made aware of an idea his faculty had to form a dedicated space for NC State students to gather, share ideas, take entrepreneurship classes and interact with entrepreneurs, while being in the heart of the Raleigh entrepreneurship ecosphere.

After leading a successful presentation to receive higher university support for the idea, Kirkman and his team facilitated the creation of the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic. They chose that name rather than the Poole College Entrepreneurship Clinic so any NC State student could feel they had a home there.

The Entrepreneurship Clinic is housed downtown within Raleigh Founded, one of the Triangle’s largest co-working hubs. Students have ample opportunities to work alongside startups and corporations while receiving college credit.

NC State entrepreneurship has solidified its place among the top 10 for undergraduate and graduate programs nationwide, something that historically had not been the case.

The Entrepreneurship Clinic has helped transform entrepreneurship at NC State. Photos by Marc Hall.

“I’d like to believe the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic and Poole College played a role in helping us get more visibility, and really the university has done a tremendous job of elevating entrepreneurship to that level,” Kirkman said. “If I thought back about one solid, concrete thing that I could stand back during my time [as department head] and say, ‘Hey, we built this, and I was part of it as a leader,’ I would say that.”

Embracing Think and Do

Kirkman also stands out in his field as co-author of two critically-acclaimed books on leadership. The first is 3D Team Leadership: A New Approach for Complex Teams. The second, and more recent, is Unbreakable: Building and Leading Resilient Teams.

While writing books is not new, scholars writing books geared toward a non-academic audience is a somewhat newer phenomena for many business schools. It has been historically the case in higher education that scholars mainly focus on publishing their research in academic journals. These peer-reviewed, double-blind academic articles are the “currency” of the profession.

“In the old days, you sat in your tower, you wrote a bunch of articles, you published them in a bunch of journals that really only your peers read,” Kirkman said. “And that’s not enough. It’s just not enough to really justify what we’re doing in our existence. We need to translate all of that high quality research for practitioners to make a difference and have a real impact on managers and employees.”

Kirkman and his co-author dedicated Unbreakable to their families and all front-line workers and first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, upon arriving at NC State Kirkman saw an opportunity to break the mold by offering practical strategies grounded in his research for industry leaders to implement in their teams.

“It was when I got to NC State and I saw the Think and Do [motto] that I really felt more free,” Kirkman said. “And then the Shelton professorship came along. That is exactly when I decided to write my first book in 2014 because I thought, ‘Well, here’s a university that really values the scholarly part but also the practice part.’”

The distinguished professorship made a great impact in affording Kirkman the flexibility and resources to write his two books. For the first, he interviewed hundreds of leaders face-to-face. This differentiated method of conducting research was more time-exhaustive and costly than the more common practice of using surveys.

“A practitioner book means you need to get out there and talk to practitioners and sit down with them and observe them and learn from them,” Kirkman said. “And so it’s quite a different proposal. It required more resources. And the Shelton professorship definitely helped me carve out the time and space and provided some [funding] support as well to be a little bit more ambitious.”

General Hugh Shelton and the Shelton Leadership Center

Beyond the extra funding afforded through the professorship, Kirkman has also recognized the power — and weight — of holding the name of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his job title. He’s found that the professorship has increased his visibility as a leadership scholar and has added an aura of credibility.

Kirkman has met General Shelton, an NC State alumnus, and collaborated with the Shelton Leadership Center on a variety of projects over the years. He finds the personal connection particularly meaningful because of the alignment between his field of study and Shelton’s professional experience.

In 2012, General Hugh Shelton (second from left) was one of three awardees of the Watauga Medal, NC State’s highest nonacademic honor. Photo by Marc Hall.

“Any time I go talk to any audience, anywhere, ever, I always start with who General Shelton is, what he stands for, and what we do here at NC State regarding the Shelton Leadership Center,” Kirkman said.

For the center, Kirkman serves as a bridge between the work being done in leadership and the Poole College of Management. He is a guest teacher for the SLC undergraduate course on decision making and operates as the research arm of the organization.

It was when I got to NC State and I saw the Think and Do [motto] that I really felt more free.

Some of the biggest ways the SLC engages students and the surrounding NC State community are through two annual events: the Red Hat Shelton Challenge and the Shelton Leadership Forum.

The former invites North Carolina high school students to a summer weeklong leadership development experience on campus.

“I spoke at one of their graduations a few years ago … and the kids were getting up and giving testimonials about what they had been through that week. And most of them were crying and really in tears about how impactful it was for them and how much it meant to them, how many of the things that they did increased their confidence and built their desire to be a leader,” Kirkman said.

The Shelton Leadership Forum is a nationally-recognized event that invites a diverse audience to spend part of a day focusing on practical lessons in values-based leadership. The 2023 event was held Oct. 13 and centered on resilient leadership.

Shelton Leadership General Fund

This unrestricted fund account helps grow and expand the impact of Shelton programs, including the nationally renowned Shelton Leadership Forum.

Across campus, Kirkman has his fingers in many different pies — all flavored in some form or another with leadership. As a dynamic and charismatic individual, he greatly enjoys an opportunity to speak the language of leadership, whether it’s to high schoolers, undergraduates, MBAs, PhD students or C-suite executives.

And throughout his work he can’t help but come back to the pride he feels in being the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor.

“I couldn’t have envisioned if someone said, ‘Well, what kind of chair do you want? What kind of distinguished professorship do you want?’ I couldn’t have envisioned one that was this special and this meaningful to me. General Shelton is a genuine American hero, and to hold a distinguished professorship in his name and honor is a dream come true.”