Are leaders born or made?

By Emma Rhodes on 01/03/2017

It’s a timeless question, and a topic for debate the world over: Is it possible to learn to be a leader? Or is leadership wholly a question of inherent personality, charisma: an innate set of skills and attributes that you either have or you don’t?

When we talk about positive and successful leadership this encompasses a wide range of skills, attitudes, values and characteristics” says Rachael Westgarth, Round Square CEO. “For each of us some of these come more naturally than others, and the combination is different for every individual. Leadership is not a fixed constant. You evolve your leadership style over time, and adapt it to different circumstances.

A big theme for Round Square is the idea that there is more in each of us than we know – we are capable of more than we think. Much of leadership development is about digging deep and discovering this inner capacity. Round Square students are encouraged to a growth mindset, with an understanding that the most successful leaders have confidence in their ability to grow and develop with the needs of the team, organisation or people that they lead.”

The educational philosopher Kurt Hahn, on whose theories Round Square was based, believed true leadership to be about being of service to those that you lead. To this day, servant Leadership is perhaps the most fundamental cornerstone of the Round Square philosophy. Through a wide variety of practical, hands-on programmes and activities, students in Round Square schools learn to lead teams by listening to, respecting, co-ordinating and acting on the consensus of their peers. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “There goes my people. I must follow them for I am their leader”.

This approach to a democratic and open style of leadership is also strongly evident in Round Square’s own structures and practices. Round Square schools are encouraged to actively engage students in running the school, and a range of in-school activities and programmes are led by the RS Student Committee. At a global level, it is the students that organise the Round Square International Conference, and traditionally the conference workshops are also led and facilitated by students.

Even Round Square itself follows the same principles of servant leadership, “practicing what we preach”, with a Board of Trustees that is wholly elected by the Global Member schools and a strategic planning and development process whose strength lies in collaboration and consultation between the RS Board, Leadership Team and Membership.

At a practical level, a great opportunity for RS students to gain hands-on leadership experience is through participating in an RSIS Big Build Service Project. These projects bring together a truly international team of 50 students from more than 25 schools around the world to work as a team in support of, and alongside, a community that is seeking help. Most recently, a team of Round Square students completed a Big Build project in Nepal replacing a school building that was devastated by the earthquake. In July we are heading to Tanzania to work with the local community in Marangu to improve the facilities and infrastructure at Ng’aroni Primary School, and in December 2017 our student team will once again partner with a local community to rebuild an essential but crumbling dam in Vietnam.

During the course of a Big Build project, each participating student spends time working in multicultural teams with fellow students from around the world and members of the local community. It is an immersive leadership development opportunity through which they learn as much about leadership from being part of a team as they do from leading one. As Aristotle observed “He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander”, and this is an important early lesson for RSIS project participants.

I think that the students can learn from each other’s strengths and learn how to work in community, to achieve a common goal.” Says Rachel Cazabon a teacher at Lakefield College School in Canada, “It is always nice to see some students, who feel they are already good leaders, have to take a step back and support their fellow team members in their leadership development.

As Cristina Angel Possea, student from Colegio Anglo Colombiano in Columbia explains: “I think Round Square teaches you about leadership in a way that you need to appreciate and understand other people's ideas in life as much as they need to respect your own ideas.

In addition to working within a team, each student has multiple opportunities to lead them, developing and rehearsing international and intercultural leadership skills through practical experience.

As Nicola Marriott from Glenlyon Norfolk School in Canada explains: "Throughout the project there were opportunities to lead, whether or not I had been selected as the leader of that day. There were always little projects, mainly at the building site but also at the camp and in Kathmandu, where I could step in to lead a group of students and help to accomplish the task by sharing my skills.”

The lessons that come from this immersive, hands-on style of learning are the sort of perspective-shifting life-lessons that simply cannot be gleaned from theoretical study. Sometimes these are simple, practical, but essential lessons: “It made me realise that I need to speak slower and clearer” says John Mbako from St George’s Diocesan School in Namibia “You need to give a direct message and make sure everybody understands.”

At other times the learning point is less tangible, but no less fundamental, for example “I realised how mentally tough it is to be a leader” says Keyley Bitzas from Ivanhoe Grammar School in Australia, who participated in an RSIS project in India: "To be able to adapt to different situations and think on the spot, in my opinion, takes more out of you than physically working on the site."

Participation in an RSIS project can be a great experience for students that have potential to step up to leadership positions within the school” says Rod Fraser, Chairman of the RS Board of Trustees, and Principal of a Round Square School for more than 20 years; “As Head of School, you are always looking for opportunities to develop your key student leaders in their final year. An RSIS project is a great opportunity to do this in an exciting, inspiring, rewarding and meaningful way.”

Rufaro Sithole an alumnus of Round Square, now studying at Brown University, had just such an experience: “Round Square really emphasises leadership and service, and I think that really helped me to be an effective Head Girl,” she says: “Besides developing my understanding of servant leadership, I think Round Square helped me to make personal connections; and you need to be able to do that as a leader - you need to connect with the people you are trying to lead - and Round Square helped me to develop those skills.

Of course the leadership development opportunities afforded by the service project experience are not just for those that are already destined for leadership roles. As Priya Barai, Geography Teacher at Box Hill School in England observes “Some children, that I would never necessarily have thought would be strong leaders, having taken part in service projects come back so inspired that they actually go on to lead other initiatives.

Recognising how powerful these learning interventions can be in terms of students’ leadership development, we are about to embark on an initiative to help students capture and make the most of the experience. Linking the RSIS Big Build Projects with Round Square’s Discovery Framework, 2017 will see the development of a more structured pre-and-post programme for RSIS service project and conference opportunities. The aim is to draw out and capture students’ learning and support their personal journey through focused reflection activities that enable them to analyse, process, recognise and apply the skills and qualities they have developed and discovered.

The Round Square’s Discovery Framework captures and describes the spirit of a Round Square learner who develops and exhibits competencies and attitudes in relation to each of the six IDEALS (Internationalism, Democracy, Environmentalism, Adventure, Leadership and Service). The framework connects the spirit of the RS IDEALS with twelve Discoveries that students make on their learning journey (inquisitiveness, tenacity, courage, compassion, inventiveness, ability to solve problems, self-awareness, sense of responsibility, appreciation for diversity, commitment to sustainability, communication and team-working skills)

Within the Round Square Discovery Framework, we talk about a ‘Spirit of Leadership’ which is found in those whose convictions are rooted in personal responsibility, kindness and justice” says Round Square CEO, Rachael Westgarth: “Our definition recognises that successful leaders are driven by a desire to be of service to others and to nurture, guide, develop and help them to improve and succeed. We talk about equality of opportunity, courage and compassion. A particularly important message to convey to the future leaders whose characters we are shaping today is that through self-awareness and emotional-literacy they can confidently temper, analyse and express both their own emotions and the emotions of those that they lead.

Other more tangible attributes that are recognised under a Spirit of Leadership within the RS Discovery Framework are self-confidence, determination, motivation, intuitive decision-making, persuasion and negotiation and creative problem solving as well as the ability to spot opportunities and take calculated risks.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that “A GOOD leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a GREAT leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” This truism is also recognised in the Round Square Discovery Framework where the capacity to generate a sense of belonging in others is promoted as a stepping stone to team members feeling valued for their contributions and consequently taking pride in their efforts and achievements.

As Nelson Mandela, a Patron of Round Square until his death in 2013 observed, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.