Hey Ma… I’m a “Student Leader!”

by Yonathan Ararso ’13

If there is a term we abuse almost as unforgivingly as tradition at Hampden-Sydney, it is leadership. Classes, lectures, panels, and honorary societies are dedicated to cultivating young leaders. We even have a minor with the word embedded in it: Military Leadership and National Security Studies. We encourage and reward those we call “student leaders” and praise them for their service to the institution. But it seems we are not alone in this abnormal infatuation.

 According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Today’s students need leadership training like never before,” the author, Richard Greenwald, argues that in college campuses across the nation, leadership programs have “sprung up in remarkable numbers.” The article goes on to note: “some universities and colleges, like Gonzaga and City University of Seattle have developed degree programs in leadership and many more such programs are being planned.”

What is wrong with that? What is so wrong with cultivating self-reliant, creative, initiative-taking individuals? Nothing really.  It actually sounds like a delightful idea! Who wouldn’t want to be on a campus full of kids who act like moral, responsible, engaged members of the community—I get butterflies just thinking about it! While the goal by itself is benign, the way we go about achieving it creates a lot of mess.

In that context there are several questions we should ask ourselves: Is packing an auditorium full of kids and lecturing them on the nuts and bolts of good leadership a legitimate operation? Can leadership—like other well-established disciplines—be dismantled into a set of principles and guidelines for the consumption by the masses? Greenwald would have us believe so.

 “America is suffering a crisis of leadership,” he argues; therefore, students should hone these basic skills before entering their respective fields. I don’t disagree with the logic. However, institutionalizing leadership, so to speak, has severe drawbacks. Sure, we can outline protocols and convey it to the auditorium full of potential “student leaders.” These students can then exercise and recite these neatly outlined set of lessons and be on their merry way on becoming student leaders—bada bing, bada boom!

Such an approach, however, is detrimental on many levels. First, even if some level of success is achieved, training leaders on such a massive scale is bound to create some individuals who feel a sense of entitlement to a certain position or office. After all, these students have been taught, trained, and bestowed with the qualities of a good leader, right? And we don’t need to shuffle through too many pages on a history textbook to witness the chaos that unfolds when a handful of leaders with the wrong intentions get into a position of power.

 Second, such a focused pursuit leadership itself makes “leadership” the finale goal as opposed to a vehicle for delivering the goals outlined earlier. Third, and perhaps most detrimentally, such an operation severely stifles creativity. I heard Gandhi was a great leader, but I doubt I will have very much use for civil disobedience in my day to day encounters.

So, when we get a formal handbook or a text book education on leadership, we are uniformly indoctrinated with the supposed qualities on how to be a great leader. This leaves little wiggle room for channeling our own life experiences as a source wisdom and understanding.

Not so long ago, I had a conversation with one of my professors on our use of leadership and what it entails at Hampden-Sydney College. At the end of the day, we both agreed that as an institution of higher education and a great liberal arts college, Hampden-Sydney should seek to cultivate morally upright, creative, and self-motivated students. However, these traits should not be tainted with such an amorphous concept like leadership. We should always seek to educate men to be good students and good citizens, period.  After all, our mission statement reads “forming good men and good citizens” not “forming good men and good student leaders.” 

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