When Followers are Leaders

Susan Cain: “If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value, then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type A’s. This is perhaps unsurprising, even if these examples come from highly competitive institutions. It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd … So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.”

“But many students I’ve spoken with read ‘leadership skills’ as a code for authority and dominance and define leaders as those who ‘can order other people around.’ And according to one prominent Ivy League professor, those students aren’t wrong; leadership, as defined by the admissions process, too often ‘seems to be restricted to political or business power.’ She says admissions officers fail to define leadership as ‘making advances in solving mathematical problems’ or ‘being the best poet of the century’.”

“Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of ‘leadership skills’ is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It 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.”