Friday, February 12, 2010

When did it become all about leadership?

Every time I turn around these days I find myself faced with either a new opportunity that will develop students' leadership capacities or someone looking for such an opportunity.

I know that kids applying to college or filling out scholarship applications love being able to list the leadership positions they have had, and by the way the questions on some of these documents are phrased, it is clear that the universities of the world cannot have enough new students with gobs of demonstrated leadership ability.

No wonder teams have tri- and quad-captains and every club or student organization has at least two co-presidents. Collaborative classwork is touted for the chances it gives students to develop and practice leadership skills, and for families with a few extra bucks, those fancy leadership programs (critiqued in the New York Times a year or so back) are just the ticket for turning an average kid into a--leader! Half of the nation's charter schools seem to be "leadership academies," and half the nation's independent schools seem to be proud of the various leadership-development activities that they offer.

Hey, leadership is great, and no one in our society could argue that we're seeing too much of it these days. But I have to wonder: Is all this emphasis on developing leadership skills--which seems often enough to mean simply developing the skills to look carefully and thoughtfully around, help out, and occasionally advocate around an issue or a community--really getting us anywhere, or are we simply devaluing a term that has a fairly august and specific and sometimes appalling historical meaning?

From the birth of the republic through the age of John Dewey and up until not so many years ago, educators were focused on the idea, and the meaning, of educating young people to be participants in a democracy. The skills for doing this involved being alert and informed (looking carefully and thoughtfully around), stepping up to serve and participate where needed (helping out), and actively supporting one's beliefs, sometimes through voting and sometimes through advocacy.

I'm not sure how many of the students being offered leadership training in classrooms, summer programs, and extracurricular activities, could tell you exactly what leadership means, or what its varieties might be. Was Hitler a leader, or Pol Pot? Is Barack Obama, or Sarah Palin? Is Oprah, or Lance Armstrong? We hear that the "teabaggers" don't have or necessarily want to have leaders--but someone has to organize the convention or be the talk radio spokesperson; are those people leaders, or commentators, or managers? There's also the question of whether the opposite of leader must be follower--and who is which.

Certainly the best leadership programs explore these issues in real depth, as schools should have been doing all along if they are to prepare a knowledgeable and informed citizenry. I guess I am just a little puzzled, and kind of amused, that every child today must be a leader of tomorrow. I think we're overselling an idea that serves the ego (and polishes the resume: "I am your president/captain/leader!") at the expense of a broader, more historically relevant and socially and politically crucial concept, the simple and venerable idea that participants in a society need to think for themselves and act when they must based on principle and reason.

I think that teaching students how to lead is quite important and quite progressive (old and New), but I think that it is even more important that we refocus some of the attention we give to attaining positions and titles of leadership on the more fundamental question of what it means to be an informed and effective member of a community.

Leadership is neither about holding a title nor about having taken a multi-thousand dollar trip to Washington, D.C., and receiving a certificate. Leadership is about knowing when and how to step up and when and how to support--and sometimes oppose--others in the service of making the world a better place.


Josie said...

I couldn't agree more. And it's all so tiresome. Like listening to endless bleats about 21st century "skills'.

bill01370 said...

As always, you're making me think. Last Friday, in MOCA (collective student government including our whole middle school, which changes student leaders every two weeks), I was really impressed with how efficiently and inclusively they were working together through the agenda and the various tasks they had set themselves. I was thinking how much they'd taken ownership of the group, and how much they were learning about leadership. But really, it wasn't just leadership they were learning, it was exactly what you're talking about - how to function effectively in a democratic community to get things done. Interesting how often you see what you're looking for! And, of course, good for them!

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