I’ve been trying to think through why I’m bothered by the idea of cultivating “leadership” among our students as a possible area of intensified institutional focus.
Partly I think this is a theme that virtually all highly selective colleges and universities already pay a lot of attention to, an old, established trope of appeals to teenage strivers and achievers. It’s pretty hard to do something distinctive in such well-trodden ground.
Unless it’s to rethink whether to walk there in the first place. In general terms, I’ve come to the same conclusion about leadership that I’ve held for a while about the desire to change the world for the better. Any community or organization needs good leadership, just as they have a need for people who set out to improve the way things work, but setting out with the primary objective of being a leader or changing the world is a good way to accomplish the opposite of either of those goals. Effective leadership arises out of circumstance and experience, when it is needed. The people who start off with the driving desire to be leaders are the problem, not the solution. I don’t want to tell any of my students that they’re already leaders, or that they’re being trained for it.
That sense of entitlement to leadership and its prerogatives is crippling the political classes worldwide. In the name of leadership, technocrats live apart from their citizenry, experts decline to sully their knowledgeable conversations by engagement with the insufficiently educated, activists burn bright with the Promethean fire they bear into what they imagine to be the darkness of apathetic communities. Leaders do to others and are not done unto. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is such a leader (though notably, one who rose above the initial judgment of the French educational system that he was not fit to join the political class). The “WutbÃ¼rgers” of Germany are pushing back on “leadership”. The citizens of Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Portugal and Spain are all fuming about how “leaders” take care of themselves while inflicting austerity on others, much as the “leaders” of the American financial system have decided that risk is for the ruled, not the rulers.
It’s one reason educated progressives in the U.S. have trouble gaining political ground. They may criticize what some politicians do, but they themselves are too much part of the culture of leadership, too close to the political class, to articulate that criticism in a convincing way. We’ve trained them that way, sent them on their way with a heavy dose of noblesse oblige, eager to speak for other people and anticipate their futures.
I think I’d rather start with humility, decency and authenticity before I work on leadership. It doesn’t matter what our students end up doing, all three of those will serve them well. Let leadership come to those it will when it ought. I’m more content setting out to be a part of training ordinary people to do their share of some bigger work, with teaching loners and wanderers who will keep their distance from anything that needs to be led, to suggesting the value of introspection and exploration for all sorts of work and all sorts of lives.