To the Editor:
Shampa Biswas is quite right to say that the students selected for leadership programs are often well-to-do, and she is right to suggest that too many leadership programs foster traits in their students that easily characterize authoritarianism (“Stop Trying to Cultivate Student Leaders,” The Chronicle, September 27. However, this is not a reason to discourage students from aspiring to be leaders.
Contrary to what Biswas suggests, colleges are actually suffering a student-leadership crisis where more and more students graduate and head into the world of work still needing to have their hands held through life as an adult. Indeed, recent employer surveys show that only 43 percent of employers feel that their college-educated employees are proficient in professionalism and work ethic, and only 33 percent said the same regarding leadership. Campuses nationwide appear to be producing more followers than ever before, and this is something that ought to concern institutions of higher learning.
Instead of discouraging students to be student leaders, we should change the way we cultivate them. Leadership programs should evaluate their vision for student leaders. Are they cultivating leaders that will put an organization first or the people first? Are they cultivating leaders more likely to take a skills approach to organizational issues or a holistic and interpersonal approach? Ultimately, leadership programs should consider what styles of leadership they are promoting.
Student leadership programs should adopt a vision of servant leaders. In these programs, student leaders learn how to be stewards rather than autocrats. They learn that leadership is not defined by inserting one’s self into a problem in order to diagnose it and prescribe a remedy. Rather, students learn that leadership is defined by how one empowers others to solve complex problems. Biswas ends her article by recommending that we encourage students to “embrace horizontal relationships.” Servant-leadership programs encourage this by design while simultaneously addressing the student-leadership crisis that afflicts our institutions. We should not stop cultivating student leaders, we should just change how we do it.
Adjunct Instructor and Academic Advisor
Middle Tennessee State University