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On Leadership

MIT offers students and alumni many ways to develop their leadership potential.

While on a trip with the MIT Alumni Travel Program, I recently hiked with my sister travelers down into the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania to the site of Louis and Mary Leakey’s find of the early hominid Australopithecus boisei. The first two-thirds of our stay in Tanzania was a fulfilling cultural experience summarized by the trip’s billing: “A Glimpse into the Lives of Traditional and Modern Women in Tanzania.” The last third of the trip introduced us to the country’s natural wonders, including the paleontological riches of the Olduvai.

I took two other short hikes about three years ago. I was one of hundreds of thousands of walkers and gawkers out to examine the engineering and architectural marvel of the Big Dig highway project beneath the city of Boston and the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge across the Charles River. Many more Bostonians turned out than had been expected, driven by a desire to see where billions of their tax dollars were going and by the thrill of seeing a massive and beautiful engineering project up close.

In the Olduvai, I tried to imagine how humankind had first spread across the globe from East Africa. On the Zakim Bridge, I tried to imagine the political and engineering wherewithal needed to complete this still controversial project. In both cases, I imagined someone having an idea, sketching a plan, and enlisting others to move on it.

Leadership is the indispensable ingredient for any concerted effort toward a common goal, and leaders require strong communication skills as they reconcile, shape, sharpen, and focus ideas so that they are actionable.

The Corporation Joint Advisory Committee on Institute-Wide Affairs brings together corporation members, alumni, faculty, and undergraduate and graduate students to raise issues for deliberation and action. One issue raised by graduate students in past years has been that technical and scientific leadership alone is not sufficient for success in today’s multidimensional, team-driven global environment.

Today’s MIT is squarely in the business of producing leaders. For example, the Sloan School of Management has launched the MIT Leadership Center to add leadership training to the business and technical expertise of management ( The MIT Entrepreneurship Center seeks not only to train technology leaders but to enable MIT to be an institutional leader in entrepreneurship worldwide ( LeaderShape is an intensive, six-day residential program for undergraduates that challenges its participants to gain self-awareness through exercises, assessments, team-building, and group problem-solving ( The MIT Venture Mentoring Service was created by alumni to provide advice, experience, and real-world ballast to help startups reach the next stage of development ( The MIT Public Service Center gives students an avenue for implementing innovative community service ideas in the Boston area and around the globe ( The Center for Reflective Community Practice links community activists with technologists and educators (

The MIT Alumni Association also depends on leadership at all levels: leading clubs and affinity groups, starting new initiatives, being active as national officers, and helping to fund MIT’s many endeavors. The Women’s Leadership Conference, to be held this spring, and the Alumni Leadership Conference, held every fall, bring together alumni leaders. As L. Robert Johnson ’63, a past MITAA president, said, “Leadership in this sense is identifying and building programs and services that motivate alumni/ae to get connected to the Institute and each other in whatever ways they find rewarding.” One can say that MITAA activities provide continuing education in leadership for alumni.

During the trip to Tanzania, our band of MIT alumnae travelers enjoyed the special privilege of meeting extraordinary Tanzanian women who had organized themselves to improve the lives of their families and villages. With courage they face the perhaps insoluble task of preserving their traditions while engaging the cash economy to meet such basic human needs as education, health care, clean water, and sustainable energy production. The women in those groups, and especially their leaders, were inspiring examples of the power of leadership.

Linda Sharpe ’69 is president of the MIT Alumni Association.

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