The college admissions process often causes high school students to think of leadership positions as currency. Consequently, it is easy for students to think of leadership as a title or a means to an end. This mind-set, when it persists at the University level, devalues a rich learning opportunity and contributes to the false impression that leadership in student organizations is a necessary check mark to secure employment or a slot in graduate school. Furthermore, as mentioned in a recent article in The Atlantic by Tara Isabella Burton, American colleges place an overemphasis on leadership, and there are other valuable interpersonal qualities we should regard with similar esteem.
Ultimately, student leadership is a lot less important in the hiring process than it is for applying to college. A 2008 collegegrad.com survey of 500 entry-level employers listed factors employers consider most important when hiring new graduates. It revealed that employers barely take into account student leadership, which was not even directly included in the list. It fits best under the category of “other miscellaneous qualifications,” which ranked at 5 percent in importance, preceded by major (44 percent), interviewing skills (18 percent), internship/experience (17 percent) and college the student graduated from (10 percent). By a slight margin, it ranks higher than GPA (4 percent), personal appearance (1 percent) and computer skills (1 percent).
For graduate school, where GPA is a much more significant factor, it is important to know one’s ideal balance between leadership and academics. In a study on the relationship between undergraduate student activity and academic performance, researchers at Purdue University found that, although, on average, student leaders above the 3.0 level tended to have higher GPAs than organization members and non-participating students, involvement in more than five organizations caused average GPAs to decline.
True, organizational involvement can help reveal a bit of one’s personality on a resume. But there is much more to leadership than the impression it leaves on employers, so we should stop allowing ourselves to define it so narrowly. The value of leadership lies in how it can help in one’s personal development. This view, of leadership as a learning opportunity, is what we should emphasize instead—especially as an institute of education. Through leadership positions, students can learn and practice things that aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom. Among other things, it can foster initiative, responsibility, adaptability and interpersonal skills. These are the traits that we should be developing as college students and, simply put, as people.
In redefining leadership, we shouldn’t allow the term to lose its meaning because we prescribe it as valuable in all contexts. As mentioned earlier, The Atlantic’s Burton makes a case for other valuable interpersonal qualities, such as teamwork, which are often overshadowed with the American obsession with leadership. She also warns against the reduction of leadership to a requirement. Leadership redefined should forge new pathways, and should be one among many interpersonal styles that is lauded by the University.
Our concern with leadership should not be about a means to an end, a rat race or as the power-hungry ascent up a beaten path. Leadership is a process. It is an opportunity to grow and a chance to pave new roads — and it is okay if it is not for everyone.
Almeda is a marketing senior from Seattle