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The UnCollege Blog

What Schools Don't Teach: Leadership

By Jean Fan

As a freshman in high school, I remember enviously eyeing club presidents, student council members, and editor-in-chiefs. They led the school, or so it seemed. By junior year, when I held some positions of my own, I remember thinking: this can’t be real leadership.

TAUGHT: Hold a leadership position

In high school and in college, we’re encouraged to demonstrate our leadership potential by holding positions in clubs or organizations. So we apply for some, and we get them. Then we proceed to do the bare minimum: attending weekly meetings, diligently finishing our assigned tasks, and occasionally telling others what to do.

It’s easy, I quickly learned, to get called a leader without having to act like one.

So can we really equate holding a leadership position with actually being a leader? Given the extrinsic motivation of putting it on a resume, no, we can’t. I know a lot of “presidents” who demonstrated no leadership whatsoever, and I know a lot of great leaders who never held a title.

We know that leadership is not determined by the number of positions that you hold. Then what is it, really?

NOT TAUGHT: How to be a leader

Leadership means different things to different people, and in different situations.

To me, leadership is a character trait. It’s not something that you do at specific times of the day, or in front of certain people. It’s not easy, or else everyone would have it. It’s certainly not defined by speaking the loudest or having the most to say.

Instead, if you are a true leader, you are always taking initiative, cheering on your team, solving problems, offering your opinions, and thinking in the long term. You lead by example, and often from behind. Oftentimes you lead others without any prospective reward. It’s just something you decide to do.

Like anything else, being a leader means having the habits of a leader. All it takes is defining and developing these characteristics in yourself. You could, for example, decide to compliment the actions of one person on your team every day, or regularly determine and fix a problem that is out of your domain.

The bottom line is this: you can choose to be a leader, but you have to act like one for it to matter. Will you?

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