Leaders often are born, while others show the way through hard work

  • Written by Claudia Parker


Are leaders born or made?

That question has been debated for eons. Some say natural communicators possessing social intelligence with a knack for bringing others together to complete shared objectives can’t be taught, only strengthened.

Others argue true leadership is only obtained by practicing acquired experience and mentoring.  

Both arguments are so convincing. I teeter on the fence as to which theorists I agree. Regardless of how they’re made, I know how some of them are being discovered.

Back in January, my sister-in-law, Crystal Sykes of Chicago, along with 29 other workforce frontrunners were selected into the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) from a pool of over 100 applicants. I was present when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago’s Deputy Mayor Steve Koch and University of Chicago Vice President for Civic Engagement Derek Douglas welcomed the 2016 Class during a ceremony at the Gleacher Center on Jan. 13. The intense six-month program started the following day.

The university launched the Civic Leadership Academy in 2015 in hopes of developing promising talent to assist nonprofits, city and county government agencies in Chicago to reach new heights of success. The program is in its second year.

In February, the 2016 cohort traveled to the University of Chicago’s Center in Delhi, India, for a weeklong global practicum.

Throughout the CLA program, each of these trailblazers were required to strategize to assess and work to resolve a practical challenge facing their specific organization. The employee must be nominated by their organization to be eligible for consideration. It’s a high compliment because once accepted, the employer must also fund their applicant by paying a tab of $6,000.

Crystal is the director of Employee Services and Workforce Development at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. She provides operational and strategic oversight to employment practice and workforce development efforts. She holds a master’s degree in Public Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management.

“Crystal is someone I look up to,” said Don, my husband and her younger brother. She is the second to oldest of his four siblings. He continued, “When we were growing up, I’d go to her for advice often. She had a good track record with me for analyzing problems to generate favorable solutions. I’ve always felt she was extremely smart. She graduated high school at just 16 years old.”

I personally admire Crystal’s resolve. She has a gift for remaining composed in highly stressful situations, which is a fundamental component of being an effective leader.

Crystal said she feels the six months spent in the CLA has her better informed on what true leadership means to her.

“I recognize that there are varying types of leadership and while many people can be leaders, we can have very different leadership styles and we don’t have to be the same to be effective,” said Crystal.

She went further by explaining that the CLA helped her to focus more on the functions of a leader rather than temperament. “This program challenged me to examine my character – I’m now more apt to recognize which character traits are manifesting in a given situation. I’m then able to be more decisive about which one of those traits I want to bring to the forefront in that moment.”

Crystal recalls on her first day of class learning about Harry Davis’ character theme. She said, “It’s centered on knowing ourselves and leading authentically. Leadership is accepting yourself and using whatever your own style is to change those things that you can. At the beginning of the CLA, I likened leadership to being more about what one does – in spite of anything or anyone else. I now also look at leadership as being what one does because of someone else.”

The CLA graduation ceremony took place last Saturday, June 18. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for Crystal. I slid my way up into the front row just before she received her certificate in civic leadership from Chicago Harris. It was my honor to witness the culminating celebration of her completion of the program. Now that she’s been strategically trained, I’m very excited for her and I’ll be cheering as I watch her elevation continue.

Success is within all of our reach if we desire to obtain it. All we have to do is reach out and grab it. You don’t have to be in a leadership role in order to make an impact. Just choose to be the change you wish to see in the world.

Claudia Parker is an Evergreen Park mother, author and runner whose columns appear in The Reporter the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.