Alum fashions program to find and support ‘natural leaders’

Since she was a child, Margo Hittleman ’81, Ph.D. ’07, was encouraged to speak up and try to change things that she thought were unfair. Looking back, she says many of the things that bothered her most related to systemic social injustice and exclusion, and she wanted to do something about it.

Today, Hittleman is a resource educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and co-founder and coordinator of the Natural Leaders Initiative (NLI), a program that has helped more than 600 people develop leadership skills, focus on inclusion and make changes in their families, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities. NLI’s Natural Leaders programming boosts informal and emerging leaders, centralizing those typically underrepresented in community and organizational leadership, such as people of color, immigrants and those with lower incomes.

NLI also provides workshops and coaching to staff and leaders in established organizations who want to foster diverse participation and leadership and improve their organization’s impact. NLI’s inclusive leadership workshops range from focused two-hour introductions to the intensive, five-day Cultivating Inclusive Leadership Institute. This year, the institute will take place on campus Oct. 1-5.

“NLI is about recognizing, encouraging and building people’s capacity to engage collaboratively in creating solutions,” Hittleman says. “There is a huge, diverse leadership potential in every organization and community that is usually their greatest untapped asset. NLI helps tap that potential.”

As a first-year student at Cornell, Hittleman says she was interested in biology, but also found herself gravitating toward courses in anthropology, history, philosophy and sociology.

Hittleman chose to major in the then-new biology and society program, finding that the mix of classes fit in well with her mix of interests.

“As a 19-year-old, I was learning to think about issues from a multidisciplinary perspective,” she says, adding that she was particularly affected by anthropology professor Davydd Greenwood, who had created the major.

“It was a fabulous major for a young person who wanted to gain a broad interdisciplinary perspective,” she says.

After a junior year abroad at a kibbutz in Israel, Hittleman ended up staying in Ithaca after she graduated, working on campus and off, writing informational materials, developing new programs, obtaining grants and other resources, and teaching educational courses.

In 2000, she returned to Cornell for a doctorate in adult and extension education; After finishing, she launched the Natural Leaders Initiative in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and three other local organizations in 2007.

“There’s a lot of research supporting the idea that when it comes to solving complex problems, where there’s no simple technical solution, the more you can create a forum for diverse participation and inclusion, the better the outcome,” Hittleman says.

Participants in NLI’s workshops expand their confidence and skills, explore the ideas of collective leadership, discover new resources within and around themselves, build their networks, and are supported to move from ideas into action.

“NLI gave me opportunities I hadn't had before,” says 2013 NLI graduate Tierra Labrada. “It helped me become more politically active and civically engaged.” Labrada was recently tapped by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 to chair the city’s newly formed Community Life Commission.

At the Cultivating Inclusive Leadership Institute, participants focus not just on personal, but also on organizational change, learning practical research-based strategies and tools to harness the power of diversity and establish behaviors of inclusion.

“There is a strong connection between diverse teams, inclusive behaviors and innovation and impact,” Hittleman says. “Increasingly, people are realizing that inclusion is not just a moral good. It’s also the most effective way to succeed.”

For the October workshop (registration deadline is Sept. 17), NLI is partnering with Cornell’s Office of Professional Studies and Cornell's Team and Leadership Center.

“I get to spend my days talking to talented, inspiring and passionate people about what they are trying to do and figure out how we can help,” Hittleman says about her work. “This work keeps me hopeful.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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