Learning Leadership

Are some people natural born leaders? Or can leadership be learned? The nature versus nurture debate frequently plays out when it comes to leadership. Researchers at University College of London (UCL) have been studying whether or not genetics are associated with the likelihood that people take on leadership roles. “We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” said lead author Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve. “The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait.” The researchers estimate that a quarter of the observed variation in leadership behavior between individuals can be explained by the presence of the rs4950 gene. However, that leaves a significant piece of the puzzle up to forces that exist beyond genetics.

At HMI, our leadership curriculum is firmly grounded on the assumption that leadership is fundamentally a learned skill. Just like math, while some students may present with a natural aptitude for manipulating numbers, all students benefit from math instruction. To further the analogy, math (or leadership) is like a muscle that can be exercised. Unexercised, the muscle will become weak, even if it starts strong. Conversely, if the muscle is regularly exercised (even if it starts weak), it has the propensity for growing stronger, perhaps even stronger than an unexercised muscle that was endowed with natural strength.

During the Semester, the Summer Term, and our custom leadership programs, we teach students the tools they need to become effective leaders. While most students embrace the leadership curriculum and the opportunities presented by the wilderness to put these leadership theories into practice, some stalwarts remain skeptical: “Really?” they ask themselves, “Abraham Lincoln had to learn to be a leader?” Thanks to the UCLstudy published online in Leadership Quarterly, I finally have an answer: yes, only a quarter of the variation in leadership behavior is related to genetics. The rest is up to you.

My favorite HMI leadership classes relate to developing students’ self-awareness. A study conducted in 2010 by Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations studied 72 executives at public and private companies with revenues from $50 million to $5 billion and found that strong self-awareness is a key factor in successful leadership:

“Leadership searches give short shrift to ‘self-awareness,’ which should actually be a top criterion. Interestingly, a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. This is not altogether surprising as executives who are aware of their weaknesses are often better able to hire subordinates who perform well in categories in which the leader lacks acumen. These leaders are also more able to entertain the idea that someone on their team may have an idea that is even better than their own.” 

Whether it be a class on how to give (and perhaps more importantly, receive) feedback, to personality tests that seek to identify one’s ‘home-base’ personality, I value not only the skills these classes teach, but the important dialogue they initiate around who we are and how we interact with others. In addition to an understanding that leadership can be learned, students at HMI walk away with an appreciation of the fact that leadership can come in many different shapes and sizes: it can come just as much in the form of taking charge when you hear lightning in the distance, as quietly supporting your peer during a one-on-one conversations under the tarp, or continuing to dig-out that quigloo at the end of a long day.

To quote retired four-star general and former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell: “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error, and from experience.” HMIprovides experiences to our students that allow them to safely make mistakes, grow from them, and engage in a thoughtful leadership curriculum that gives them the scaffolding necessary to understand their strengths as a leader. As HMI alumni continue on their life adventures – in high school, college, and the work place – I hope they continue to practice the leadership skills they learned while hiking through the Sawatch Range or rappelling into a canyon in Utah. I hope they foster environments in which open communication and feedback is valued, where leadership development can continue to be a life-long journey.

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