Historic Inspiration for Travel & Service in the Formation of Leadership

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Young adults who have either the foresight or the good fortune to experience a time of sustained travel and/or service before they embark upon their careers are making a good decision. Immersion travel, as opposed to tourism, augments leadership skills. Immersion travel may challenge the traveler to engage a new language, housing, food, lifestyle or worldview which is very different from one's own home experience; whereas, tourism simply enclaves and cocoons the traveler. Significant American leaders such as Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, John Muir, Jane Addams, and John Quincy Adams all had significant travel experiences as young adults that prepared them with experience, perspective, vision, and leadership skills that went beyond the dictates and opportunities of their home cultures. In fact, I have found that the experiences and encounters beyond the charted territory of their home cultural environments had a profound and positive influence on their future leadership which, in turn, impacted the shaping of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In my research on the impact of travel and service on significant historic American leaders, I have discovered three traits shown by these young adults: perspective, flexibility, and credibility. These traits led to a transformation in their lives that spurred them on into significant contributions to the well-being of others around them. These experiences provide rich opportunity for a profound and positive influence upon their leadership development. I rely here on Ronald Heifetz's definition of leadership as "adaptive work." Adaptive work is the ability to affect positive change for a common good by confronting new challenges with new pathways, adjusting one's values, attitudes, and behaviors to the dynamics of a changing world, and by collaborating with others in a common effort towards currently unknown solutions to a set of problems. Such adaptive work-leadership-requires the ability to evaluate, and, at times, set aside one's received heritage and the value constructs that forged one's past, while simultaneously developing new expressions of values and creating new patterns that are more able to engage the complexities of our world today.

Young adults who travel abroad or live in a culture other that the one that has nurtured them gain perspective on their home cultures. By living in different conditions, experiencing community differently, and simply eating and negotiating in another culture, whether it is abroad or in one of the many multi-ethnic communities in the United States, young adults realize both the strengths and limitations of their own culture. Sojourners, after a period of travel or sustained service, see that home culture through new, discerning eyes.

As young women in the 1830s, the Grimké sisters left their home in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved north, seeking a more supportive environment for their abolitionist efforts. Their intimate experiences with slavery equipped them to become forceful critics of slavery and of restrictions on women's rights. Their move north gave perspective on the cultural entanglements of the South with slavery and afforded them opportunities to become more dynamic critics than they would have become if they had chosen to continue to live in the South. Perspective added intensity and credibility to their leadership.

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James Hunt is a retired Professor Emeritus of History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington and President of the Board of The Krista Foundation. He has been deeply involved in leading groups of college students for study, service, and travel in Central America since 1981. His doctoral research focuses on how the significance of youthful travel shaped leadership formation in major historical figures. His current research focus is on John Muir, founder of the American Conservation movement and the Sierra Club.


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