As I write this month's column, I am in Denver attending the final meeting of the Governor's Commission on Early Childhood Leadership. Though this commission has been legislatively reauthorized, I am not sure if they will want the continued presence of a retired college president on the new commission.

However, having been an ardent supporter of early childhood education all of my years in higher education, I would be the first to say how important serving on this commission has been in elevating that commitment.

Sixty years ago my mother ran what was then called a nursery school (now, of course, it would be called preschool). She knew, and would tell anyone who would listen, how important those early years were to brain and personality development. She and my father, a high school teacher, would have innumerable dinner table conversations about the respective and interactive roles of nature and nurture in shaping a child's personality and future.

Now, of course, we have access to extraordinarily insightful research into brain development from the prenatal months through adolescence. What one can safely say, based on voluminous and exponentially increasing research, is that from the womb through age 5 our brains experience extraordinarily important growth and development. Which, in terms of this column, then, leads us to a question we have addressed before, and which a member of the commission just asked me a few hours ago: "Joel, are leaders born or made?"

Several years ago, after delivering a speech on leadership and technology, I was asked by an audience member, "Do you truly believe you can enable someone to be a leader? Aren't some people simply born with a leadership personality?" In other words, are some people just born with leadership presence?

A quick response to this often asked question might be my favorite line from the classic children's novel, "The Neverending Story:" "Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe neither." And, one might add, maybe both.

Though I doubt that we can "teach" someone to be a leader, I do believe passionately that we can assist individuals from childhood on in learning to be leaders — especially by developing a strong work ethic, along with a sense of trust and empathy.

Three books which have become favorites from the burgeoning body of leadership literature urge a positive response to the opening questions. Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else"; Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown"; and Matthew Syed's "Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success" talk in depth specifically about the issue of "talent" regarding athletes and artists, and they all proffer superb insight regarding leadership in the organizational world.

Succinctly, they all dismiss the concept of inbred or inborn "talent," and conversely stress the need for "deliberate practice," "deep practice," the continuing and passionate commitment to learn, improve and succeed. For all three authors, though mediocrity can be comfortable, superiority and high achievement will be challenging for one who would lead in any arena.

Any given individual at any given moment may be called upon to exercise leadership responsibilities. No correlation exists between leadership ability and gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical challenges or age (some small children on occasion have access to extraordinary insight). One never knows when that moment may come when an individual will be "chosen" to lead — just as we all know there are moments when our best role involves being a conscious (informed) and conscientious (ethical-moral) follower.

Speaking personally as the retired president of a liberal arts college, I believe unequivocally that leadership (the learning and exercise thereof) constitutes the ultimate liberal art, the engagement of intellect and intuition, cognitive and affective energies, mind and heart in an attempt to liberate ourselves and others from the shackles of ignorance and superstition which would preclude moral and ethical growth.

Recognizing that everyone may be(come) a leader, that we all may lead while we all must serve, I am reminded of a quote in Benjamin Barber's astute treatise, "An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America."

Barber states, "Education is a training in a middle way between the dogmatic belief in absolutes and the cynical negation of all belief."

Leaders must learn to live, to work, and to love in that gray zone, the mind set in which we learn to act on information and beliefs, while critiquing illusion and blind faith.

Living, as we do, in a world increasingly characterized by the presence of conflict, chaos, and cacophony, a world which most commentators describe as lacking consensus, community and civility, we must both encourage and enable those who would improve communication, promote civility and build community.

Any one of us may at any given moment possess that necessary cognitive complexity (i.e., the ability to see and understand the connections among seemingly disparate factors) and affective adaptability (i.e., the ability to make connections with individuals or groups seemingly at odds). To rephrase what has become an old cliche, we should never write off leadership or leadership development, for we never know when we will have met the leader, and "the leader is us." Terrible grammar, but a challenging truth — especially in a democratic republic which must predicate its future upon the willingness of any one of us to assume the appropriate responsibility when called upon.

So from pregnancy to infancy to and through adulthood — from womb to tomb — we both shape and are shaped by those whom we would serve and lead. We all can exercise leadership roles and responsibilities, recognizing finally, as always, that to lead is to serve —and we all can learn to lead with love and trust.

Dr. Joel Jones is president emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango. He can be reached at jones_joel@fortlewis.edu.