Colleges Are Pushing The Wrong Message About Leadership

We’re creating leaders who aren’t in it for the right reasons.

Emma Haak
Emma Haak
Mar 28, 2017 · 3 min read

‘Leadership skills’ are the holy grail among college applicants. Schools place an out-size value them; would-be-freshman strive to show that they have them. But Susan Cain makes a convincing case in this New York Times piece that not only are colleges defining leadership all wrong, but that it’d do the world some good to value those who don’t want to be at the front of the pack.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the piece, entitled “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers,” Cain explains that higher education’s push for ‘leaders’ (front and center on applications from top schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and more) has created a generation of go-getters with no clear sense of where — and why — they’re trying to go. “They all want to be president of 50 clubs,” one faculty advisor at a New Jersey school tells Cain. “They don’t even know what they’re running for.” As Cain writes, this relentless emphasis on leadership “teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.” This leaves us with leaders who are in it for the accolades and not for the work or the greater good.

It also runs counter to an interesting psychological principle Cain spotlights called “followership,” an idea that’s taken hold in the military and beyond, saying we need principled, disciplined, courageous followers just as much as we need leaders. It might be easiest to think of this in the context of sports teams. A football team with 11 quarterbacks on the field, instead of one QB and ten players following his lead, would be downright disastrous. Or look to the 2004 men’s Olympic basketball team — it was stacked with high-profile talent like Allen Iverson, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Stephon Marbury, all of whom could correctly be called the leaders of their own NBA squads. The team won bronze and was widely considered a failure. Since 2004, the Olympic team has had fewer household names but more success. Consider it a new type of Dream Team.

Finally, there’s the problem of how we define leadership in our broader culture. Cain argues that our current definition fails to include creatives who may not want to lead a Fortune 500 company but are at the forefront of their own fields. Or those who don’t follow typical steps to get to the top, but get there nonetheless. This teaches kids that not only is there one way to be a leader, but that the crux of being is a leader is “being able to order other people around,” Cain writes.

If we want to change this, we need to expand our idea of what constitutes a leader and make a point of letting kids know that they should only pursue leadership if they’re in it for the right reasons. Being in charge for the sake of being in charge benefits no one. As Cain puts it, “Take this role only if you care desperately about the issues at hand.” Those who are only after fame, fortune and the power-rush of bossing people around need not apply.

Read Cain’s full piece on the New York Times.

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