Why Students Need Less Leadership and More Followship

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I’m in a lot of schools on a pretty frequent basis, and I’m noticing a disturbing trend: a focus on what is called “leadership” in a way that is hurting, not helping.

I saw it most closely when a friend of mine taught at a school last year that even had the word “leadership” in the name of the school. On paper, it sounded great. We’re going to raise leaders! We’re going to instill leadership qualities in the students! We’re going to require parents to be involved! It’s going to be awesome!

Except how it wasn’t.

There was little or no accountability for students who not only didn’t follow the identified leadership traits, but didn’t even follow fundamental standards of conduct. They didn’t enforce the parent involvement requirement, so it added to the dynamic that they didn’t actually mean what they said. The school’s own leadership didn’t lead, so that was a problem.

I’m not naming the school because I don’t think it’s all that unique.

Why We Need Less Leadership

There are four reasons I think this is true, though the idea will likely ruffle some feathers.

1. Too Many Leaders Are A Problem

The first reason is that by definition, you need fewer leaders than followers. We’ve even got a (probably no longer politically correct) saying for an inbalance in this dynamic: too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

To operate effectively, an organization needs fewer people guiding it than they do people following that leader. That’s just simple organizational math.

It’s silly to pretend that just because it sounds good, we’re going to make everyone a leader. Look, school’s aren’t Oprah’s Favorite Things Show, throwing out qualities: And you get to be a leader!
And you get to be a leader! And you get to be a leader!

It doesn’t work like that.

We don’t actually need more people who want to be in charge. We need people who deserve to be in charge, and we need people to execute the vision.

2. We’re Confusing Leadership with Personal Responsibility

One of the fairly common companies that sell leadership curriculum to schools (Oh, I should throw this out here as another problem: it’s yet one more money making thing for companies that get schools to spend lots of money on their curriculum.) lists these as the qualities of leadership their curriculum teaches:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Self-Discipline
  • Vision
  • Initiative
  • Communication
  • Relationship Building
  • Goal Achievement
  • Public Speaking
  • Global Awareness
  • Emotional Control
  • Teamwork
  • Listening Skills
  • Time Management
  • Leading Projects
  • Self-Directed Learning
  • Valuing Diversity
  • Problem Solving

Friend, these are traits of personal responsibility and emotional intelligence, not leadership.

You want to teach traits of leadership? Try these:

  • personal sacrifice in pursuit of common good
  • how to share your ideas persuasively
  • how to instill confidence in others
  • how to inspire others
  • how to have candid conversations
  • delegation
  • how to grow others
  • how to empower people
  • diplomacy
  • graciousness
  • how to simultaneously see the 30,000- and 10-foot views

We need kids to learn the traits in the first list, but we are deluding ourselves and lying to our students if we tell them that these things will make them leaders.

We are also undermining our own efforts when we label them leaders but don’t even have expectations of age-appropriate executive function and personal management.

3. You Can’t Force Someone Into Leadership

Becoming a leader is more subtle than a bunch of traits or skills. It involves possessing that certain je ne sais quoi we sometimes call charisma. It involves having people willing to follow you (see problem #1 for how the math of this won’t work out if we keep thinking everyone needs to be a leader).

From personal experience, I can tell you this is true. I am not a leader. I have fairly strong skills in nearly all of the list of skills that so-called leadership curriculum are trying to teach, and yet, I’m not a natural (or even fake) leader.

I have personality traits that make me not particularly leaderly. For example, I don’t suffer fools (or their stupid ideas) gladly. We can stop there. I think you get the picture.

Leadership is far more complicated than simply some pre-packaged curriculum with a bunch of slick posters and even slicker slogans.

You have to actually lead something, and you have to have people willing to follow.

4. We Create Unreasonable Expectations

If I go to a school that touts me as a leader simply because I attend a certain school, I may develop unreasonable expectations of the role I will play in environments outside of the school.

I know that this (thinking a kid’s a leader because they’re breathing in a building with “LEADER” in big letters on the side) happens because I’ve seen the bumper sticker: “My child is a leader at Blank Leadership School.”

You can guess how I feel about that.

For many students, the very last thing they need is have the self-aggrandizing view of themselves as leaders. They are not being taught a servant leadership model, by and large.

They go out into other environments like clubs and jobs, and they think they can run it better than it is currently being run. Frankly, there are places that probably an eight-year-old could run better, but in general, it’s not helpful to think that you’re superior to everyone.

I fear that many of these schools are teaching superiority, not leadership. And to make it worse, it’s unwarranted superiority.

Why We Need More Followship

Followers are leaders of themselves. That’s an underrated skill far too underappreciated in today’s world.

Effective followers have powerful skills that serve themselves, their families, and any organization lucky enough to have them.

In addition to the habits of personal responsibility disguised as habits of leadership listed above, effective followers have:

  • enthusiasm
  • the ability to see someone else’s vision and move it forward
  • a willingness to use their own strengths and to appreciate the strengths of others
  • initiative
  • humility

Give me more students developing these traits, please.

Don’t get me wrong: I think teaching traits of personal responsibility is terrific. I actually think it’s the job of parents to do that, but if we’re going to make the actual raising of children the job of schools, we could do worse than to teach personal responsibility.

What I object to is the labeling of these traits as being limited to leaders, the creation of the expectation that everyone can or should be a leader, and the complete lack of accountability in expecting people to actually act like leaders, not just be labeled leaders.

Much of this current fad in education owes itself not to a desire to really build strong students, but rather to appeal to parents who want to see their children as leaders. That’s not a good enough reason.

Last Words

The greatest leaders in the history of our world did not go to a school with “leader” on the building. They went to the schools of hard work and hard knocks. They learned resilience through real-life experience. You can’t hand leadership to someone on a silver platter, even if the platter is handed to them by a teacher.

Wanna teach a kid to be a leader? Let them spend more time actually leading something and less time playing last-person-standing video games like Fortnite where you use violence to win, rather than humility and empathy and vision.

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GiftedGuru trivia: I may have made up the word “followship,” which would be the second word I made up. I also made up “clickhanger” to describe when you have to wait until you click to find out what happened, rather than wait until the next season on television.

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