What is leadership? This is the fundamental question that this blog seeks to answer. As we delve into the specific operations and tactics that student leaders use to run successful organizations, it’s vital that we not lose sight of this question. How you define leadership will inform both the choices and approaches you take to the various situations you’ll encounter. So, let’s begin by covering a bit of theory.
Leadership has been defined any countless number of ways by many famous and infamous people.
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu believed:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”
Former First Lady and mental health advocate Rosalynn Carter ascribed:
“A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”
American management consultant Peter Drucker asserted:
“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
While valiant attempts to capture the essence of leadership, these definitions are a bit too abstract for our purposes. I define student leadership as follows: Leadership is convincing individuals to do what is in the best interest of the organization.
Do not mistake position for leadership. I’ve encountered many students who see leadership as a ladder instead of a circle. They’re interested in climbing the ladder of leadership positions until they reach the highest rung. From that commanding post, they issue orders like a two-bit dictator and expect the full-fledged support of the organization. Yet the most successful student leaders realize that when you reach the top, you’ve come full circle and are actually back at the bottom. The leader must support his constituents; his success is dependent on their success. Position is the title you are granted which officially gives you certain powers and responsibilities that must be agreed upon by the members of your organization. However, that power exists only insofar as the members agree to give you influence through their compliant actions. If the members of your team take that power away from you by ignoring your leadership, then your title turns into a hollow phrase that’s worth little more than a resume garnish. Just as individuals follow your lead to accomplish the goals of your organization, so too must you be respectful of the individuals who have entrusted you with that power. Your primary responsibility as a leader is to do what is in the best interest of the organization — which means that you serve your organization. Your organization is composed of its members; therefore, you serve the members.
At its core, leadership is the ability to navigate a diverse group of people through a variety of challenges internal and external to the organization. To an extent, you can control who enters your organization by screening applicants. However, individuals will inevitably surprise you. People may change their actions and thoughts based on their age, environment, emotional state, and any number of other factors. As your constituency changes – sometimes on a day to day basis – you must learn to adapt.
Do not despair. The task before you is not impossible. There are common themes attributable to the human condition that you can rely on as guiding posts for your administration. Individuals inevitably want to feel accepted, valued, rewarded, and challenged. You will begin to realize over time that each person has a certain pattern of behavior with distinct preferences, aversions, strengths, and weaknesses, and that these patterns of behavior can be influenced by your leadership if you are able to tap into their primary motivating factors.
However, team member management is not the only challenge you will face. As a leader, you’ll deal with many external factors on the way to accomplishing your organizational goals. You’ll encounter everything from deadlines to issues with competition readiness, from budget cuts to combative external organizations, from success to tragedy. By keeping these conditions in mind, balancing competing interests, and anticipating the logistics you’ll need to have in place, you’ll be able to build a strong course of action which tailors itself to the task you have at hand and the people you have available to conduct it. The better you become at this, the better your results will be.
This may seem complicated. It is. At first, you’ll likely be overwhelmed with the amount of input that you receive from your organization. Plotting a course of action will take significant thought and energy. Even then, you’ll make many mistakes. Yet as you develop as a leader, your analysis of these signals will become second nature, and you’ll react to situational changes organically. When you can enter a room full of your teammates and immediately plug into what is happening and where you need to go, that’s when you begin to fully understand the soul of the organization. That’s when you know you’re becoming a great leader.
Leaders Understand the Theory of Balance
If I could, in this instant, impart on you one comprehensive concept with all its inherent intricacies, it would be this: Balance is everything. In my mind, the perfect leader would understand all the implications of his or her actions and would proceed in a way that exactly realizes those implications. Different disciplines from physics to economics have their own names for these ideal systems. But just as there is no perfectly efficient energy or market, there is no perfectly efficient leader. Therefore, we should strive towards optimal balance and be prepared to engage the unanticipated side effects of our actions.
Balance is a tricky concept because it requires quite a bit of intuition that can only be attained through hard-won experience. When we seek to create a positive change within our organization, balance is walking the tightrope between too much of a good thing and not enough. I will, throughout this blog, reiterate time and time again the importance of a well-balanced strategy. Your ideal strategy for implementing change will take into consideration as many factors as possible while minimizing unwanted complications. You’ll think through questions with ambiguous answers. How enthusiastically should I pursue a budget increase? How strictly should I discipline a member who has broken a team rule? How often should I delegate important tasks? My guidance will provide for you an initial scale. Your experiences will teach you how to adjust it.