Student Leadership: It’s Not About You

by Mark Dixon

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

Originally published on April 21, 2015

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Kathy Griffin, our Director of College Counseling, hosted an informational meeting in Carson Auditorium for current juniors and their parents. College admissions representatives from both public and private institutions were on hand to share their perspectives and insights from “the other side” of the admissions desk.

After covering several topics, the panelists moved on to the subject of extra-curricular activities. Some students, they explained, involve themselves in many different activities in hopes that their diverse interests and their ability to juggle many demands simultaneously will separate them from the proverbial crowd of applicants. This seems to be a reasonable and intuitive assumption: the more extra-curriculars, the more bullet points that can be added to one’s college resume. However, the reps immediately stressed the importance of quality involvement in extra-curricular activities, not necessarily the quantity.

So, in the minds of admissions folks, what constitutes quality involvement? Well, the one word that resonated with them both . . . leadership. According to the panelists, students who hold leadership positions in their extra-curricular activities (team captain, class vice president, editor, etc.) “display” that a) they have committed themselves deeply to something and b) that they will enter college having already acquired significant leadership experience.

For colleges, leadership titles are familiar; they are concrete. They can assume that individuals received their leadership positions, at the very least, because they exhibited some inkling of leadership potential prior to stepping into the position. And, for the most part, this is a fair assumption.

However, the leadership titles on one’s college resume provide no information about the quality of leadership the individual exhibits once he or she is officially handed responsibility. With a focus on what may “look good on paper”, young student leaders can be misled into thinking that WHAT they accomplish as leaders is more important than WHO they are as they pursue these objectives.

Undoubtedly, student leaders desire to leave their mark in highly significant and, in most cases, highly tangible ways. They desire to leave the school community “a little different than the way they found it”, as it were. New initiatives, activities, fundraisers, events . . . these are all quite noble and profound ways in which student leaders tend to focus their time and energy, and school communities are, in turn, exponentially blessed by these efforts for years to come.

I am keenly aware of the inevitable primacy that performance outcomes (i.e. good grades, notoriety, college acceptances) can tend to take in any academic institution. However, secondary schools are still a training ground, a time and space for students to develop postures of the heart and disciplines that will empower them to overcome obstacles and bless others with their lives.

In Dr. Madeline Levine’s 2006 book entitled The Price of the Privilege, she reminds us that young people “need to see that we value their CHARACTER first, their EFFORT second, and then their [performance].” Focusing our language and attention on the development of character and effort, we TRUST that positive tangible outcomes will follow, even if the harvest is reaped years after graduation.

As we reassess our goals for student leadership at Stony Brook each year, it can be tempting to gauge the success of the overall program on some of the tangible outcomes mentioned earlier. After all, these kinds of projects require heightened levels of teamwork, initiative, and follow through, all traits we desire to see blossoming in our students. These good things are easy to report, to take photos of, to include in constituent newsletters.

Nonetheless, students need to hear us (and believe us) when we remind them that performance, results, tangible outcomes are of secondary importance when it comes to meaningful leadership in any community. Communities are held together, vitalized, and strengthened when leaders invest in and prioritize a crucial, but less tangible outcome: authentic relationships.

Authentic relationships are the product of individuals’ genuine concern and care for others.  Good leaders, invested in authentic relationships:

  • recognize the imperative to serve, to connect, and to listen
  • do not view their position as an expeditious means toward self-gratification or self-promotion
  • understand that people trump “to-do” lists
  • view interruptions as opportunities
  • inspire others to do the same

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is our example of self-forgetful leadership. His mission was not political, it was personal. He invested himself deeply in the lives of his disciples; he addressed the concerns of the needy wherever he went; he ate and drank and laughed with people from all walks of life. His legacy of love, which has changed the course of human history and eternity, was and is a revolutionary way to approach life.

As Stony Brook students continue to apply for leadership positions and contemplate what it means to be leaders, may they understand that:

  • true leadership is never political – it’s PERSONAL
  • WHO you are is more important than WHAT you accomplish
  • self-forgetful investment in AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIPS is the greatest gift and the greatest legacy a leader can leave

As a college preparatory school, college admission is a tangible outcome we cannot minimize. However, our objective in leadership development is far greater than providing flashy bullet points on a resume; we desire for our students to be marked by humility and genuine concern for others, that they may “serve the world through their character and leadership.”

“The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”    

                                                                                                  –C.S. Lewis


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