The topic of leadership has come up quite a bit lately. From news stories in the New York Times, or related articles in the educational magazine The International Educator (TIE), and of course during conversations with parents and students. Colleges and universities have helped promote this buzz surrounding the idea of Leadership recently, but as is suggested by the articles and my conversations, it seems the concept of leadership has been skewed and lost in translation. But I will ask you to read one more article from Frank Bruni, called It’s OK.
As an educator over the last thirty years my definition of leadership has changed. I too have been caught up in the excitement of students wanting to engage in roles where they can be tested, to understand what being a leader means. Often, I have seen students fail in their positions. Other times I have been impressed and amazed by what students can achieve.
Why do students fail at taking on active roles in leadership? Partly due to the fact that students want the position, say all the right things during elections, but then fail to follow through. We will get to the why in a minute. But getting back to wanting the position in the first place. We all appreciate accolades, the applause, the proud parents and the titles. We do this because it makes us feel good. Teenagers, in that period of seeking acceptance, at a time when their confidence is still forming, seek to gain approval – approval from their peers, their parents and others around them. These are tricky times for teenagers as they seek to find their place in the world, a world that is giving them all sorts of messages about success and failure.
Parents want their children to be successful, to feel “right” in the world they live in. They push their children with high expectations, as pointed out in the TIE article. Teachers push as well; they want their students to perform well to show their own ability to teach and teach successfully.
People thrive with and from acceptance. We all want people to “like” us and accept us for who we are and what we have achieved. But where I think it all goes wrong is that we often don’t think about what it is we are doing, because we get caught up in the process and not what we have learned from the experience. We worry too much about hurting others by standing up for what is right. We are afraid of sharing our opinion because it might offend. But true leadership is about taking a stand.
In grad school at Harvard, I took a course on leadership. The course talked about having a vision, inspiring others with that vision, and setting about leading people to make that vision become a reality. Also during the course we engaged in case studies where leadership went wrong. We looked at corporate structure, good and bad, we looked at ideas gone right and wrong, and in the end, we came away with the critical tool that leadership comes down to communication. The ability to share ideas, using resources at hand – especially human resources – to create the end game of the vision. We also talked about how the end game can change, the vision might be altered to create a better vision, and that the vision has a greater possibility if the vision is only an ideal, but a changeable ideal. But it takes leadership to understand that the “vision” is only a target and as opportunities arise, something better may come about.
So let’s come back to why students fail at times in leadership roles. Often it is because they are not given the tools or the directions to be leaders. Schools, parents, and other stakeholders want the prize, but forget to teach the skills necessary for students to be effective leaders. They forget they need to mentor, guide, and help students make critical decisions or confront issues. Everyone gets caught up winning the trophy; they forget to give the manual for success.
Win, win, win! But not everyone wins. And when students don’t win, who is there to help them get back on track? We all love success, there is no question about that. But what of “just doing good?” Doing things for the right reason? Or being a part of something for the pure enjoyment? In the New York Times article, Susan Cain writes about the beautiful game of soccer – “The thing that makes it beautiful is not leadership, though an excellent coach is essential. Nor is it the swoosh of the ball in the goal, though winning is noisily celebrated. It is instead the intricate ballet of patterns and passes, of each player anticipating the other’s strengths and needs, each shining for the brief instant that he has the ball before passing it to a teammate or losing it to an opponent.”
I underlined the sentence in the quote above, because in my mind that is leadership: the “intricate balance” of knowing when to stand firm or knowing when to concede. Leadership is about the ability to understand strengths and weaknesses (one’s own and those around), in order to move forward. But most importantly, leadership is to understand the vision, and act even if it goes against friendship or authority because it is right from a moral and ethical standpoint.