One might ask, what do the words career and leadership have to do with one another? The answer; more than you might imagine.
Words and phrases containing “career” and “leadership” are often buzzwords used in higher education, sometimes without rhyme or reason, and often without malintent. But what happens when both words become used so often that there is no longer a strong and salient meaning and message behind it? Look at the words “sorry”, “literally”, “honestly” and “very”, to name a few, how often do we use them on a daily basis and how often are they overutilized or misused? Now think, how often are higher education buzzwords used? How many times in your day or week do you hear or use the words, “career”, “leadership”, “involvement”, “assessment”, “world-class”, “cutting-edge” (and about fifty others)? How many times do you see these words in recruitment materials? Online? In a conference proposal? The list is seemingly never ending, and when used so often, do they lose their merit and meaning?
In a world where the term “leadership” is tossed around like hot cakes and talked about as often as the Kardashians on E!, what does it really mean? I will never forget the day a first-year student made an appointment with me, as the Assistant Director of Leadership and Professional Development on our campus, to talk about “leadership things” within the first month of school. When we met, she told me she wanted to find out about leadership opportunities on campus so she could do them. “Why?”, I asked. She answered, “So I can include it on my resume and so it can help me get an internship/job”. She was driven and had a clear cut four-year plan. I asked her what she thought of when it came to leadership or how she defined and looked at leadership.
This student stuck with me for awhile. I was impressed by her ambition, but curious as to what cultivated her actions. We had a lengthy developmental conversation about who she was, her goals, and how it connected to her career aspirations. We talked about ideas, discussed action steps, and goals to set for herself. I have not worked with this specific student again, but I have seen her become a “yes” woman on-campus. Signing up for everything and anything, boosting her resume and leaving me to wonder how she could possibly balance all of those activities and give each 100%. It was not until talking with a fellow staff member where I learned that while she has great intentions, she struggles with following through on them.
Leadership is something that so many of our students are groomed to ask about, want, and aspire to do when coming to college, but how can we best help them in their journey?
A quick Google search for “how to define leadership” can tell you that Business News Daily is a top hit in the search engine with 33 ways to define leadership. Forbes magazine has a slightly different take. INC. has 9 traits that define leadership. And, Wikipedia has a very lengthy and wordy take on “leadership”. None define “leadership” using the exact same language or wording. The closest I saw was looking at the simplified action of defining leadership as, “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”. In my eyes and opinion, there is not one universal or consistently used definition.
At the past several institutions I have worked at, my favorite activity to facilitate with students who are first starting their leadership journey is to have them draw a picture of what leadership looks like. Often baffled, they ask questions, in which I repeat the one simple instruction. Typically, the pictures drawn by first-year students show an authoritarian style of leadership—one great “man” and countless followers. I even had a student get creative once and draw Simba on pride rock as the leader, with the pack down below. It is very rare that a first-year student will conceptually draw a picture more advanced than this when thinking of leadership. It makes me believe that this is what they have been taught—and what they have seen.
They believe leadership is positional. That leadership has one great person, and many followers. We then work throughout the semester to break this model down, depict a different view of leadership and encourage them to form their own definition.
Simply using the word “leadership” on a student's resume is vague. I encourage students to expand upon their experiences and think of the skills they have acquired from such a position. Instead of writing that they were “President of the Bicycle Club”, followed by a bullet that reads, “led club meetings” , to have them bullet the skills acquired and quantify their experiences. From “led club meetings” to “formulated club agendas and executed 18 executive board meetings per year”, is a big difference.
There is a mindset that in order to get a job, and not just any job, but a GREAT job, a student must accomplish and beef up their resume with the many leadership opportunities they have completed and their co-curricular achievements. I always tell students with this mindset it is okay to have a few strong leadership experiences, ones where they gave 150% and highlight their passion on their resume, versus a laundry list of things they participated in. Quality versus quantity.
As professionals in higher education, we are often driven by our passion for learning and working with students. When a student comes to you looking to get involved I encourage you to…
- Challenge them
- Ask WHY?
- Talk about quality versus quantity
- Encourage them to say “no” sometimes and that it is okay
- Share with them insights on how to convey said leadership experience on their resume, in a cover letter, and how they can talk about it
- Talk about the transferrable skills they will acquire and how they will help them in the future
- Talk about how leadership is not solely positional
Most importantly, be a mentor that encourages growth for the student, and not simply the growth for the particular office you are invested in on your campus. We always want to work with the best and brightest students, but what happens when that student is being overworked? How often have we seen a stellar student leader burn out because they are being pulled in ten different directions by ten different offices?
As a fellow higher education professional, I implore you to think about your leadership journey and concept of leadership. Explore the leadership models and theories your office follows and find those which you can personally identify with and follow. Having a better context for the true meaning of “leadership” will not only strengthen us as professionals, but it will invigorate and energize the conversations we have with students seeking to develop their own leadership identity.
About the author: Megan Webster, M.S. is entering her second year as the Assistant Director of Leadership & Professional Development in the Academic and Career Development Center at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT. Megan joined Fairfield after spending three years as the Director of Student Activities at Elms College in Chicopee, MA overseeing campus programming, clubs & organizations, and leadership development, and two years in the Center for Student Leadership Development at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, RI teaching in the Leadership Minor and working on the high/low ropes challenge course. Megan holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Human Development & Family Studies from the University of Connecticut and a Master of Science in College Student Personnel from the University of Rhode Island. She has a passion for leadership development, rugby, good food and her dogs. Megan lives in Milford, CT with her partner and their two dogs.