With leadership such an important element of team success, Sports Conflict Institute’s Joshua Gordon and Dr. Ken Pendleton recently spoke with Jen Baker, the Director of the Big Red Leadership Institute at Cornell University, about her approach to leadership development and how it can help student athletes perform their best both on and off the field. As a student athlete, naval officer, business owner, coach, and teacher, Baker has developed her leadership skills across many settings and believes in a diverse set of leadership styles. “There is a lot of different thought out there on how to lead and all of it is right quite frankly. The right way to lead is the way that feels the most authentic to any given individual.”

Leadership Style

So how to know your leadership style? Baker stresses the importance of identifying your personal values: “Until you understand what grounds you it’s very difficult to take on the presence of a leader. (We try to) grow that awareness, building that intuition as a leader. Where is that decision coming from? Is it coming from me and how I see the world or from my team and what’s best for them?”

Critical Questions for Leaders

As an athlete or a coach, making decisions can collide with team culture and tradition. Leaders have to constantly ask questions, Baker emphasizes: “How is this serving our best interests? How is this helping us win a game on Saturday? How is this helping us win a championship? If you can’t answer those fundamental questions, leaders have to step up and do the right thing, even when it feels difficult.”

A Learned Skill

When asked if certain people are better suited to leadership roles than others, Baker thinks that is a major social misconception. “Leadership is a skill, and skills can be learned, like throwing and catching. There is a natural bias to favor the extroverted. Leadership has nothing to do with comfort in social skills. It also has nothing to do with athletic ability. Our mission is to empower (people) to step into those roles, start to grow that leadership voice, because everyone has one.”

It Begins with Followship

Baker describes leadership as a “contact sport” where listening to others and the ability to switch between leader and follower are critical. “Followership is the foundation for leadership,” Baker says, “Leaders emerge from being good followers.”

Athletics a Unique Context

Finally, Baker believes that athletics provides a unique context for consciously teaching leadership. “(It) lends itself readily because you’re already organized in teams, there is going to be adversity, going to be issues with motivating each other, all of those things that build a leaders toolkit. The opportunity to put a framework on it while athletes are here competing allows them to make those connections so much earlier, and sets them up for success the rest of their lives.”

Watch the entire interview: