Leadership, Culture, Life, Mission

What I Wish College Students Knew about Leadership

Leadership is one of those words that is used so often, and so often without thought, that it has lost much of its impact. This is true among college students as much as anyone else.

Many students, when asked what they want to do with their lives after graduation, respond that they want to change the world, to be in a position of leadership. Reflexively, a professor or parent hears this and congratulates himself or herself on having groomed another future leader. 

But the questions they should first ask that aspiring leader is “why?” 

Why do you want to change the world? 

And “how?” 

How do you want to make the world different?

All too often, young people who are asked these questions will struggle for an answer, or if they’re really honest, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say something like, “how should I know? I’m just a college student.”

As natural as this might seem, it is a big, red flag. That’s because people who want to be a leader and change the world but don’t yet understand what the world is about and why it might need to change, are usually motivated by the wrong thing: pride.  Essentially, what they’re really saying is, “I want people to see me as a leader, and to be known as someone who made a difference.” 

The best leaders, the ones that society needs to seek out and hold up as examples, are completely different.  They aren’t interested in leadership as a noun – being a leader – as much as they are in the concept of leadership as a verb – leading.  They see themselves as assuming a responsibility, fulfilling a role, achieving something that is important, regardless of whether they get credit for it or enhance their stature as a result.

Yes, this is a pretty good description of servant leadership, something that has become very popular to talk about.  The part of servant leadership that is often overlooked, and which makes it less common in practice than theory, is the fact that it involves sacrifice.  Servant leaders sign up for very real pain and suffering.  Usually, that pain and suffering exceeds any tangible benefits or rewards that eventually come to the servant leader. 

Who would ever willingly sign up for such a role?  Only people who are genuinely humble; people who believe that the outcome of their effort is more important than the cost of leading.  These people are relatively few and far between, and they should be nurtured and cherished.

People who are motivated by pride, who want to be known as a leader and a difference-maker but who don’t know why or how – and we can all relate to them – should not be leaders at all, because ultimately they are looking to be served.  They would be better off waiting until they identify a real unmet need, one that requires someone to step up and take a stand at the risk of their own peril, before they volunteer to lead.  They, and the people they lead, would all benefit from that kind of maturity and restraint.