Editorial: Opportunities exists outside leadership roles


Stephen Coburn

Creative Commons

As the end of the academic year swiftly approaches, the season for college, grad school and job applications is upon us.

From first-year students trying to find their first internship to anxious seniors procrastinating their final papers, we’re all wondering if the classes we’ve taken, grades we received and experiences we’ve had are enough to set us apart from our peers and on the path to success.

The New York Times published a column this week about the tendency for American society, and especially college admissions, to place so much emphasis on the value of leadership that it has diminished its meaningfulness. And this sparked a discussion among the editorial board about what exactly we should be striving for when we pursue opportunities to lead.

Leadership is a must-mention buzzword during any college application or job interview today. Harvard includes it as one of the top criteria for admission to the university, following maturity and character. More than 80 percent of employers look for evidence of leadership skills on applicant’s resumes, according to a 2016 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And even at Pitt, one of the three short-answer questions on Pitt’s undergraduate application focuses entirely on how applicants have “exhibited outstanding leadership.”

At Pitt, we have an entire University office dedicated to fostering students leadership skills on campus. Programs such as Emerging Leaders or Nordenberg Scholars teach helpful skills but also further the traditional understanding of leadership as an elusive trait one must gain through practice instead of something that can be done by anyone in any field. It’s this one-size-fits-all approach to leadership that makes it a problematic core value in our society.

There’s nothing wrong with being a leader if that’s what you want to do. But when we favor leadership as one of our top qualities for success, we foster an inauthentic development of those skills. We tell students it’s more important to get a role doing any kind of leadership than pursuing something they’re actually passionate about.

In the Times column, the author spoke with students who said they often understand leadership skills in the context of jobs or the university to be synonymous with people who are authoritative and dominant — ideas that undoubtedly symbolize success. But the problem with those associations is that they perpetuate the idea that characteristics more strongly associated with being a follower — such as kindness, creativity and teamwork — are not valued skills to cultivate.

The traditional type of leadership we’re fostering among young people, the kind that prioritizes the spotlight and the opportunity to pad a resume, is not a holistic or healthy one. If it’s actual leadership we’re valuing, we should strive to uphold a definition of leadership that doesn’t just mean being in charge and making executive decisions.

There are plenty of important and constructive skills to be learned from behind the scene jobs that can also be valuable leadership experiences. Graphic designers, software engineers and researchers often aren’t considered leadership positions, but all of those careers require independent thought, analytical thinking and the ability to work with a team — all experiences just as valuable as overseeing projects.

Most people, in fact, start as students or apprentices. They begin as followers, where they not only learn their craft, but also begin critiquing the way their mentors and bosses lead. Experiencing that side of the power dynamic can be just as valuable as assuming control.

College and graduate admissions and employers have come a long way in recognizing how diversity among students and staffs contribute to successful institutions. Now it’s time to broaden our understanding of what it means to lead.

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