As a child, Leah King never stayed in the same place for long.
Her father was in the military, and that led to her moving to different states — and sometimes countries – often. Now, she has a home base in Fort Worth, and she’s working to make it better by identifying its needs and finding money to solve them.
King, 53, is the president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County. Her job requires a lot of research to find out the needs of the community and where those needs are concentrated, she said.
Growing up, King’s education and lifestyle were often disrupted as her father’s job moved them often. He was a cryptologist who worked on missiles, and she changed schools regularly until she was a sophomore in high school, sometimes moving more than once a year.
“It was very tough. The Department of Defense schools are among the top-quality schools that one could attend,” King said. “We had the benefit of having a lot of the military spouses, with very high levels of education, that were our instructors.”
All the moving schools meant she sometimes was either ahead or behind her class in curriculum. But it also was hard on her developing close friendships.
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“I hear people say, ‘Oh, we’ve been friends since second grade,’ I have no concept of that,” King said. “My long-term friends are not from grade school, by any stretch of the imagination. Social media has helped to connect with some of the folks that I went to high school with, but it was a different experience for me.”
Those difficult transitions meant King knew early on the military was not for her. Instead of following in her father’s footsteps, she chose a different path.
“I was really interested in (engineering) and went to work in a hospital after my first year and realized pretty quickly that was not going to be for me,” she said. “I couldn’t disconnect between the individual and the work, and you probably need to be able to do that.”
That led her to business communications, which is where she thrived.
Former Radio Shack CEO Len Roberts, 72, said when the company started its rebranding to more of a neighborhood help center, he was searching for a store manager to become the face of the rebrand training.
He expected the person chosen would be a white male because of the lack of diversity in management. But King was a D.E.E.P. person, an acronym he coined to describe her: full of Desire, Energy, Enthusiasm and Passion to lead.
King had what he described as an “X Factor” and she turned out to be tremendously successful in the training and campaign, he said.
King was able to rise from there, even without a college degree, and kept rising in the industry. Instead of being educated in a classroom, she learned business from running 15 Radio Shack stores and then national community relations initiatives.
“People begin to see your work. They see that you are committed,” King said. “I won’t say that it mitigated the need for a degree; there’s always discussions. Anytime I went to apply to an organization, or for a role I hear, ‘Why don’t you have that degree?’ And it’s because I’m working.”
Her work does not stop at United Way, King said she is passionate about serving the community and volunteers with the local chapter of Links Inc., serves on the boards of Cook Children’s Medical Center and Baylor, Scott & White All Saints Medical Center and she serves as the president of the Tarrant Regional Water District board.
In some conversations, King’s name has been mentioned as a potential political candidate. While she is always looking for ways to help the community, she said a political campaign is not something she spends a lot of time thinking about.
Right now, she is focused on her job, other volunteer work and leading the water board.
“We are an incredibly fast-growing region and having the knowledge of where our water sources in water supplies will be coming from for decades to come, is critical,” King said. “If I can be a part of a board that helps to focus on accessing water but also protecting our area from a flood control perspective, that’s very interesting to me. It’s a resource that a lot of us take for granted.”
Navigating controversies on the water district board has put King’s leadership skills to the test. She relies on years of experience managing people, initiatives and community events.
This mostly involves “a lot of listening,” she said. It also means keeping her team on track and focused on what the ultimate goal is and minimizing time spent on other topics.
King was nominated to lead the board by fellow member James Hill, who said she is able to build a bridge between differing viewpoints.
“Leah is the type of leader that focuses on doing the right thing for the better good at the core of our community,” Hill said. “She tries to unify different communities, different points of view and on many issues to reach a common goal.”
King has been instrumental in government and policy changes in the time she’s led the board, Hill said.
Whether in her volunteer work or at United Way, King is able to bring people with different views together to focus on the needs of the city and find solutions, said her fellow Leadership Fort Worth class of 2010 participant Paulette Turner, 72.
“She never has turned down a request to talk with someone, to share information about what it means to be in leadership and her story, which I think is just awesome,” Turner, who owns Integrated Leadership Concepts Inc. and consults for the company, said. “She’s a great communicator and is able to translate her vision into words that others can receive and recognize and accept.”
A good leader is a good communicator, but also a good listener and decision-maker, King said. It’s also important to care about people and support team members.
Her journey from her first job picking up trash to United Way CEO is a prime example of the American Dream. But as King looks around in her position, she sees few people who look like her.
“It’s sad to me that we found ourselves in 2021, and we still can count on one hand the number of Black women CEOs, especially in our area,” King said. “There was an opportunity for us to apply for a grant — a sizable grant for our community — and one of the requirements was that there was a lead organization, but that was led by partners of color or partnering organizations of color. We just don’t have any large nonprofits in our area led by women of color.”
The lack of diversity in executive positions in Fort Worth hurts the city not just personally among people of color, but financially, King said. The community missed out on a chance at a multimillion-dollar JP Morgan Chase grant.
“It is incumbent upon me, and others, to make sure that this is not how it is five, 10 years from now,” she said. “We have to invest in people through leadership opportunities. We have to invest in people to ensure that they have awareness and access to those types of opportunities as well, it should not be as small as it is at this date and time. We have too many talented women out there — and people of color in general — that have the ability to lead and to lead in a way that would make our community proud.”
Leah King bio
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Moved to Fort Worth: September 1994
Family: Married to Barry King for 25 years; One son, Ian King, daughter in-law Eronia King and best grandson ever, Ari King
Education: Some college
Work experience: President and CEO at United Way of Tarrant County for the past two years, and has worked with the organization for 5½ years. Spent six years at Chesapeake Energy as both director of community relations and senior director of public affairs. Spent 15 years at Radio Shack Corp. in a variety of roles, including store manager in Jacksonville, N.C.; answer team captain, marketing program manager; manager of Community Relations; director of Investor Relations.
Volunteer experience: Fort Worth chapter of The Links Inc., Cook Children’s Medical Center, Baylor All Saints Hospital, Fort Worth Club and lots more
First job: Picking up trash in the city where I lived at the time.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Practice listening, ask lots of questions, be decisive and grow (professionally develop) your people.
Best advice ever received: Don’t forget where you came from.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.