Mind Over Matter

There’s Nothing Wrong with Not Being a Leader

Colleges can help businesses by encouraging existing and prospective students to aspire to a better kind of leadership — followership.

If you haven’t read Susan Cain’s recent The New York Times essay on the need for more followers, I highly recommend the piece.

In it, the “Quiet” author explores the outsized emphasis many colleges place on leadership skills, especially during the admissions process. She also looks at the influence this has on the students vying for college acceptance.

Institutions are looking for alphas, not doers, a Maryland school head tells Cain in the article. The result is a cohort of high-achieving teens seeking out every leadership role possible to prove themselves worthy of a seat in a prestigious university lecture hall. That might not be the worst thing ever if it weren’t for the fact that the version of leadership high school students are familiar with is the very one that smart companies are moving away from.

To the students, being a leader is being authoritative, dominant, hierarchal. And by the looks of it, at least at the gates of college admission — my own past experiences included — schools aren’t necessarily arguing otherwise. This version of leadership is processed through a decisively business or political power lens, an Ivy league professor tells Cain. Students subsequently pursue related high school activities in a similar spirit, Cain writes, and it’s stifling.

She tells the story of a young woman who by many accounts had a lovely, happy childhood full of reading and playing the cello, until her first year in high school when, with college applications on the horizon, she began shifting her priorities. Cain said the young woman went so far as to alter her personality so that she’d be selected for a leadership role as a freshman mentor, which she did become — for a short stint. The young woman was later kicked out of the program for not being outgoing enough. This student went on to pursue interests she genuinely cared about and is all the better for it.

Cain writes that elite schools overemphasize leadership partly because they are preparing students for the corporate world, “and they assume that this is what businesses need.” Are some of you wagging your fingers yet — as many of us in the business world know different?

As power becomes more dispersed across virtually every social and economic plane due to influencers like globalization and digital technology, the definition of leadership has transformed as well. Today, what is needed to inspire performance and drive change looks different from what was needed in the past. We need less command-and-control and more collaboration, less individual ownership of business success and more supporting the structures and practices that enable the innovative work of many.

Take a look around you at the various issues and concerns of the day. The best solutions come from a coming together of minds that leverage distinct perspectives and abilities and unite around a common vision to serve others — not self. That takes more than one person handing, or attempting to hand, down orders from on high.

When schools, and later the businesses that will employ their students, over-glorify leadership skills, they teach people to be leaders for the sake of being in charge, rather than for some more altruistic, less self-serving purpose, Cain writes.

“The difference between the two states of mind is profound,” she says. “The latter belongs to transformative leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi; the former — to well, we’ve all seen examples of this kind of leadership lately.”

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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