Learning about leadership from Optimus Prime

In 1986, at the tender age of six, my parents introduced me to the seminal film Transformers: The Movie. This movie, in all of its geeky glory, has shaped my perceptions of leadership in a lot of ways.

Optimus Prime is the ideal leader. He is entirely virtuous, ethical, courageous, and never asks his followers to do anything he himself would not do. Optimus Prime is the perfect leader. For those of you who have not seen this cinematic gem, and I am sorry to ruin the film for you, but Optimus dies early on. As he lays dying (how a robot dies, I do not know) he passes on the matrix of leadership, the device that makes him the tremendous leader he is, to another Autobot. It passes hands again to Hot Rod near the end of the film at a critical moment and when Hot Rod opens the matrix and says , “light our darkest hour”. With these words, he is transformed into the Autobots’ new leader, as he grows about 2 feet, his voice deepens, and has all the gravitas of what it means to be the perfect leader.

The leadership myth

That idea, that leadership magically happens at some point, like a switch being flipped or a matrix being opened, is far too common. Leadership capacity, it seems, is a gift we think we are born with and not a competency to be developed and nourished. If you cannot automatically knock it out of the park as a naturally great leader, you will not ever be able to — a sentiment I have heard many times.. The reality is though, and with no disrespect to Optimus or Rodimus Prime, leadership capacity, is not in fact, anything like that. It is not a badge you put on and instantly become a leader, nor is it something you naturally have. Leadership capacity is developed through assessment, goal setting, reflection, and evaluation. If you want to know where you want to go, you need to know where you’ve been.

I completed my MA in leadership at Royal Roads University and throughout the length of the program, I was trying to answer the question of how to enhance leadership capacity in our student leaders at MacEwan University. At the same time, as one of the Residence Life Coordinators at MacEwan, one of my roles is to lead our leadership development program for all our student staff (Residence Assistants). My day to day job, paired with my grad work, reinforced that question of how to make our staff team and our residence community stronger.

Inspiring student leaders

What does the ideal student leader look like? What sort of impact does the ideal student leader have on a residential community? Since both are intrinsically tied together, how do we elevate both and offer an exceptional student experience? The answer to that, after some rigorous research, was that we need to intentionally and collaboratively build capacity in our student staff through tools designed to enhance their skills and abilities.

We cannot hand them a matrix of leadership and they will just magically become a Prime. Instead it takes coaching a student staff member with a predefined set of goals in mind. We identified 14 core competencies that were developed in conjunction with MacEwan University Wellness and Psychological Services and Residence Life. If a new staff member was able to fulfill the first seven competencies and a senior staff member the second seven, then the capacity of an exceptional student staff member would be developed and our residence community would be stronger.

The anvil on which those capacities were forged (much like the one ring that rules them all) was not as simple as hiring someone at the end of a 20-minute interview. It is ongoing and consistent collaborative work that ended up being the MacEwan University Residence Life Leadership Development Plan. This tool, designed to travel with any given RA for the length of their 8-month contract, is entirely about developing their capacity through assessment, goal setting, reflection, and evaluation. It is about, at the end of the day, asking RAs what their strengths are, where they can grow, setting strong intentional goals, reflecting on what has been accomplished, and setting a further path for the future. After three years of using this tool, I am very pleased to say that we have a stronger staff team where our recruitment and retention is higher than it has ever been before, our staff are performing better as community builders and leaders, and our entire residence community is healthier. Not a single resident had their contract terminated in 2015–2016 for conduct and the retention of our upper year students in residence has also steadily improved over the last several years.

In the final analysis, it is easy to say that leadership is something you naturally have and it just takes a switch being flipped to turn you into a Student Affairs Prime. That however is the fodder of children’s science fiction movies from the 80s. Reality and research tell us a different story. A story that capacity is developed and revealed through deliberate and collaborative effort through coaching and goal setting, through strong relationships and feedback, and from asking yourself, how can I be more leaderful? Sometimes it doesn’t take a momentous occasion to be a great leader, sometimes all that is needed is taking a small risk into the unknown and moving towards your ideal self.

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Originally published at blog.involvio.com on October 9, 2016.