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We need followers too

The season for college and graduate school applications is upon us. As we fill out the questionnaires and participate in interviews, one query always stares back at us: How are you a leader on your campus?

Today’s society prizes leadership skills above all, and nowhere more than in college admissions. As Penny Bach Evins, the head of St. Paul’s School for Girls, an independent school in Maryland, said, “It seems as if higher ed is looking for alphas, but the doers and thinkers in our schools are not always in front leading.”

Out of the gate, Harvard’s application tells potential students that its mission is “to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society.” Yale’s website informs applicants it seeks “the leaders of their generation.” On Princeton’s site, “leadership activities” are first on a list of attributes for aspiring students to showcase. Even Wesleyan, known for its artistic culture, was found by one study to assess applicants based on leadership aptitude.

We tend to think colleges and universities reflect the values of our time, and if that’s the case, the 21st century prizes type-A go-getters. The American dream inherently lauds those who go above and beyond. We all want to be eccentric geniuses reinventing the world in our garages á la Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. These covert billionaires have made overwhelming success a possibility for young adults across the nation, and many high school students have made it their goals to run the world before they hit their 20s.

A functioning body, however, cannot run with twenty heads. It needs team players. It needs those who think outside the box. It needs people who lead through service.

Unfortunately, the definition of leadership has been limited to political or business acumen. I haven’t run across many employers who include solving immense mathematical calculations or writing the best poem of the century.

By no means am I devaluing the skills of public speaking or riveting conversation. Nothing would get done without a positive and charismatic person spearheading the task at hand. I merely wish to acknowledge those who lead from behind, actively listen and asking questions, or filing paperwork, or setting up tables for a big event.

Schools tend to emphasize traditional leadership because they genuinely want to prepare us for the corporate world — I don’t believe they are malicious or misdirecting in their push — but a discipline called “followership” is gaining a sound reputation.

Robert Kelley, professor of management and organizational behavior, defined the term in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, in which he outlined the makings of a good follower, including being committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible.”

An excellent coach is essential to a successful baseball team, but team players make it happen. Watching a team in total synchronization is almost magic: the intricate dance of patterns and passes, a player anticipating another’s strengths and needs.

Helen Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard, penned as essay in which she pushed the university to attract more artists and not expect them “to become leaders.” A few will become leaders in the arts, she wrote, “but one can’t quite picture Baudelaire pursuing public service.”

What if we said to young, aspiring students that the qualities we value are not “leadership skills,” per se, but aptitude, passion and a longing to contribute? This includes team captains and class presidents, but it wouldn’t make “leadership” the ultimate goal. We as a society should seek out committed, creative individuals who feel called to service more than titles, and moreover, we should make that very clear to our young hopefuls.

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