I was asked to share this story from the NY Times with you guys. The source article can be found here. The article shares the name with my post title and was written by Dr. Christopher Howard, President of Hampden-Sydney College. It was published by the "NY Times inCollege In Leadership" column.
I can recall vividly the seventh-grade student councilcompetition. My social studies teacher dutifully scanned theclassroom for volunteers, exhorting at least one of us to run foroffice. Never shy to voice my opinion, it was not too difficultfor me to accept her charge. “Howie for Student Council”posters joined similarly decorated signs for candidates vyingfor a coveted position as a representative of the people. Moreimportantly, time drew nearer and nearer to the day when eachcandidate was expected to give their campaign speech to studentswaiting anxiously with open ears and closed minds.After the fifth candidate finished, it was my turn to speak.I was passionate, energetic, and interested in helping my fellowstudents; however, my talk was not terribly remarkable. Butregardless of my oratory skills, I had something every kid neededto win an election: popularity. Like most other young people thatage, I equated popularity with leadership. Not much changedduring my successful runs for office through high school andeven college, but I eventually arrived at positions in the military,Corporate America, non-profits, and higher education where,by definition, making unpopular decisions represented effectiveleadership. The desire to be popular had somehow become aliability.As the president of Hampden-Sydney College, I am impressedeach day by young people who figuratively and literally want tochange the world. Through their work with clubs, organizations,and even their very own 501(c)(3) corporations housed bothon and off campus, these young men work diligently for agreater good, leading as best they know how. They supportpopular causes and, not too unlike my seventh-grade studentcouncil campaign, they remain generally well-liked by all theyencounter. But I think it is important to caution this at timesoverly-confident generation, as well as the reader, that leadershipis not a popularity contest. Moreover, those of us who teach anddevelop future leaders must educate these apt pupils on what isjust around the corner in their often peripatetic lives.Professor Ronald Heifetz of the John F. Kennedy School ofGovernment at Harvard University often talks about leadershipbeing a dangerous place. It is even more so for young peopleif they transition to leadership roles unprepared mentally,emotionally, spiritually, and even physically for the dauntingtasks at hand. As old-fashioned as it may sound, we needto provide opportunities for emerging leaders to developtoughness—or what Dr. Angela Duckworth from the Universityof Pennsylvania calls GRIT—if they are to survive and thrive inthe 21st century.I am not arguing for a Dickensian grey world consistingof ritualistic slaps on the wrist, just because. However, I amreminding scholars and practitioners of leadership educationalike to recall that no matter how elegant an idea may be, itoften takes an individual with the courage to endure somedegree of deprivation to see it through to the end.Perhaps the best way of achieving this goal is to intentionallylink character education to leadership development, with theappropriate crucible experiences incorporated along the way.Good examples include individuals like Bob McDonald, CEOof Proctor & Gamble, and Colonel Mark Hyatt, ExecutiveDirector of the Foundation for Character Development, whosponsor important initiatives that assist with positive characterformation.The military calls it the “loneliness of command,” whileothers, describing the quintessential leadership role, theAmerican Presidency, describe it as “the glorious burden.”Whichever title one chooses, leadership is not a seventh-gradestudent council election. We must keep this precept in mindwhen developing the next generation of leaders.
Now, I don't usually just post things like this without commenting on them, and I'm certainly not going to start now. I'm not sure why the anonymous reader asked me to share this article written by Dr. Christopher Howard. It's a nice piece, though. I understand where Dr. Howard is coming from, though I was never one to run for student leadership positions. I hated the institution of "class presidents" in High School because it was always the dumb popular jocks that won. (I'm not saying all popular people are dumb, that all jocks are dumb, or that all jocks are popular, or anything of that nature. That's just kinda how it turned out at my school).
That being said, I can't help but notice that there is still a fair bit of that going on in college. Now, I'm sure the students elected to positions this year at HSC will do fine, but they weren't necessarily the ones I voted for. I did however, notice that when I asked people who they were voting for and why, a disappointingly common response was "I just think he's cool." Another: "He's my friend. I have to vote for him!" And, of course, my favorite: "Well I'm not going to vote for someone who has no chance of winning. . ."
The student leaders that end up being elected to position at Hampden-Sydney are usually fairly competent, and I have very few negative things to say about any of them. I do find it disconcerting that I hear comments like those around election times. It is that exact sort of sentiment that kept me from running for the office of President for this past year. I didn't think there was any chance of winning, and I didn't really see the point, so I stuck to my academics, instead. I'm not at school to lead, anyway.
Anyway, that's pretty much all I have to say on this article. Do you guys have anything you would like to say? Responses? Leave a comment, please, and if you have any stories of your own to share, pelase email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!