For the past decade or so, more schools have been adding “leadership” to their mission and objectives. It’s a hard thing to argue against. Certainly the world could always use better leadership. For that to happen, though, we have to reconsider some traditional notions of leadership as they often play out in schools.
In some ways this issue comes down to a matter of the individual versus the collective. Students generally see leaders as those who talk the most during class, serve as team captains, and win student elections. They are the visible faces and receive the most accolades. Whether these students are effective or not—and many are—is not the point. Instead, it’s the unfortunate lesson that students can learn about leadership: that it’s largely about what an individual gains through intrinsic talents. And students with certain types of personalities or preferences seldom get put in those roles. Early on, kids can grow cynical about the entire concept of leadership.
Sometimes I think that we should be talking with kids about not just effective leadership, but also meaningful followership. We tend to avoid the topic because follower can have such negative connotations. Yet I believe that we can teach students really powerful and long-lasting messages by helping them think meaningfully about whom, why, and how to follow. This, in turn, forces consideration of some crucial topics, particularly as students mature. What are the qualities I really admire in people? What do they look like in action? Do I look up to that person for the right reasons? Does that person want to lead for the right reasons?
Thus we move into the realm of the collective. The leaders we want students to follow act for the greater good, for larger and noble purposes. They realize that everyone has a role to play in that process and help each person to realize it. At the same time, the best followers become determined to make a contribution each and every day. They are the people we come to count on, the ones we know will move things in a positive direction. Others begin to look towards them for direction.And, when they are ready, those who follow well emerge as the true leaders.