To the Editor:
If the pandemic and our response to it have taught us anything, it’s the importance of strong, principled, forward-looking leadership.
I’ve always viewed such leadership as essential to the effectiveness of any organization, whether university, corporation, or government. I also believe the ability to provide that kind of leadership is not something most people are born with; rather, it must be carefully cultivated and developed — ideally, starting as early as possible.
That’s probably why I had such a strong, negative reaction to Shampa Biswas’s essay, “Stop Trying to Cultivate Student Leaders,” (The Chronicle Review, September 27, 2019). Honestly, I could not have been more astounded had she demanded that we stop encouraging students to eat healthier or stop teaching them to respect others.
Nevertheless, her antipathy toward what she disparagingly calls the “student-leadership industrial complex…or SLIC for short” is as palpable as it is inexplicable. She repeatedly attacks both leadership “training” (her word) and, by extension, those who provide it, accusing them of wasting students’ time, diverting their attention from more important pursuits, engaging in discriminatory behavior, and ultimately doing “harm in the world.”
Such dubious charges appear to stem solely from Biswas’s personal experiences with student-leadership programs, although she never tells us precisely what those experiences are. My own experience, which includes more than a decade of facilitating leadership programs for students and others, suggests that none of Biswas’s allegations are true. Instead, her indictment of the “SLIC” is based on a number of false assumptions.
The first is that there is such a thing as a “student leadership industrial complex.” In using this term, Biswas is being intentionally insulting, comparing those who provide student leadership programming to warmongering politicians and greedy corporations. The clear implication is that they’re in it just for the money, with no concern for the institution, society, or students themselves.
Besides being borderline defamatory, that is also patently false. I suppose, in the field of student leadership as in every other field, there may be a handful of self-promoting frauds. But the vast majority of people I know who conduct leadership programs — and I know many — do so specifically because they perceive a need for such programs — a perception consistently reinforced by the demand for their expertise.
When I work with adult leaders — department chairs, deans, hospital administrators, corporate executives — they often complain that they were placed in their positions without any training whatsoever. Indeed, that’s exactly how it works in most industries: Perform well enough in your job and you’re somewhat likely to be elevated to a leadership role, regardless of whether or not you actually know anything about leadership. Thus, much of what we do in the field of leadership development (not training) is backfill: helping people acquire the skills they need to succeed in their new job after they’re already in it.
The sub-field of student leadership arose specifically as a response to that reality. Given that roughly two-thirds of the people in this country do not have a college degree, we know our students stand a very good chance of becoming leaders in their respective industries; indeed, many of them will be hired directly into leadership (or “management”) roles right out of college. Why not go ahead and help them develop those skills now, rather than waiting until they’re pulling their hair out in a job they don’t know how to do — especially if they desire that training and the opportunities that come with it?
Biswas argues that students must “embrace horizontal relationships of comradeship rather than vertical relations of hierarchy.” Such feel-good rhetoric ignores the reality that, in almost every field, hierarchical structures not only exist but are inevitable; simply put, organizations need leaders. She also, apparently, has not gotten the memo that good leadership is by its very nature collaborative, which is something students learn in any leadership development program worthy of the name.
Another of Biswas’s false assumptions is that leadership programs seek mainly “to produce slick young leaders” by focusing on surface behaviors, like “dress sharply, speak confidently, move smoothly, learn to network, pick up entrepreneurial skills.” Of course, such behaviors do benefit students in the workforce, and not just as leaders; thus, many leadership development programs rightly devote some time to reinforcing them.
The best programs, however, do not concentrate primarily on superficial behaviors. Instead, they emphasize character-building, encouraging value-based habits of mind that foster positive outcomes for the organization, such as humility, honesty, moral courage, ethical decision-making, and leading by consensus. The goal is to develop authentic leaders from the inside out. Learning to give a firm handshake is important, but learning how to build trust is far more so.
Biswas also seems firmly wedded to the idea that leadership development programs are a waste of time, that they take students away from more worthwhile pursuits, such as “get[ting] an education.” That argument is easily refuted.
First of all, leadership studies are a valid part of a students’ education. Like any other discipline — and it is a discreet discipline, although it naturally tends to overlap with many other fields — it can indeed be “time-intensive [and] rigorous,” an integral part of a “well-rounded education that teaches [students] to read carefully, write compellingly, reason analytically, and think creatively.” All of those skills are vital to good leadership, and they must be cultivated not only in college but over a lifetime. That’s why we teach them in leadership development programs for students and adult leaders alike.
(For example, I’ve led a workshop entitled “Critical Thinking as a Key Leadership Skill” for several student groups but also for department chairs, directors, deans, and other administrators.)
Furthermore, for those students who attend a leadership program as an extracurricular activity, perhaps as members of a student government association, who is to say that particular activity is any less legitimate than, say, playing a sport, joining a club, or auditioning for a role in a campus theater production? Why should students who wish to develop their leadership skills be deprived of the opportunity to do so?
Sure, students can sometimes take on too much, especially the kind of high-achieving students who are often drawn to leadership. But in that regard, leadership programs are no different from any other activities. Students must learn to make informed, mature decisions about how much they can handle, in addition to their studies (and leadership programs can actually help them with that). But the bottom line is that students who pursue leadership development as an extracurricular activity do so of their own accord. Essentially, they self-select.
Which brings me to my last problem with Biswas’s diatribe: her thinly-veiled allegations of discrimination.
She actually undermines her own argument by acknowledging that “for young women, racial minorities, and first-generation college students…leadership training can be occasionally empowering and may give some of them opportunities to connect with one another and to network with mentors they may not otherwise have.” Remove the grudging qualifiers and we’re left with the stark, obvious truth that leadership development actually benefits many students, including — and perhaps especially — minorities.
She then goes on to say, “however, most students recruited into SLIC tend to be disproportionately drawn from advantaged backgrounds,” citing no evidence for this assertion beyond her own personal experience. Again, I don’t know what her experience is, but mine is extensive, and I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, as I noted above, most students in leadership programs — whether academic or extracurricular — self-select. They are not “recruited” except in the sense that students are recruited for any program that advisors, professors, and sponsors want to see succeed. Biswas’s rather dark implication is that leadership programs seek out “privileged” students who already have “advantages,” to the detriment and exclusion of other students. That is simply not true in the vast majority of cases.
In addition to smaller, more intimate workshops, I’ve also participated in some very large student-leadership programs, including several national conferences. What impressed me most about those programs was their remarkable diversity. Of the thousands of participants, most were female. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities were extremely well represented — better represented at the conference, I suspect, than in many of their student bodies.
So much for the charge that leadership development programs exist primarily to advance white male privilege.
In my 35-year career, I’ve worked with too many poor leaders not to take seriously the importance of cultivating good ones. I’ve also witnessed the devastating consequences of bad leadership in a crisis. That’s why one of my professional goals, as a proud member of the “SLIC,” is to help institutions produce students who have not only mastered the external behaviors but, more importantly, developed the internal habits of good leaders.
If that constitutes “doing harm,” then consider me guilty as charged.
Associate Professor of English
Perimeter College of Georgia State University
Senior Fellow, Academy for Advancing Leadership