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Adding “Ship” to “Leader” Means Something

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

“Make sure you have enough leadership experience on your resume.” “Talk to me about a time when you exhibited leadership?” “You should try for that position; it would show your leadership.” Students are bombarded with helping advice about acquiring leadership experience. Yet, both the sender and the receiver of these messages often aren’t using the word “leadership” correctly. Leadership is not the same as leader. It is like when people see my name, Helene, and call me Helen; extra letters change the word. In the case of leadership, the change is significant. Many parents, guidance counselors, teachers, etc., strongly encourage students/children to get leadership experience because it is good developmentally and because it looks good on a resume. However, what people sometimes mean when they say leadership, or sometimes are interpreted as saying, is get a position as a leader. You do not have to be the team captain, band lieutenant, lead in the play, coordinator, the student counsel representative, or even better, the president, to practice leadership. All of these things are great, but are they any better than being in band, being in the ensemble, etc.? In terms of leadership, no. Leadership is the influence you exert to help make positive change on others in pursuit of an outcome. You do not need to do that from a position of authority. In fact, we want students to do more than take on the positional role of a leader without knowing how to use their position to magnify the strengths of their team. We all have been on teams with really bad leaders who know nothing about leadership, so let’s stop exalting being a leader without leadership.

You may think this is a minor adjustment in semantics, but it isn’t. By using the language incorrectly, we have allowed a whole group of students to think that leadership has nothing to do with them. Many people don’t want to be in front, leading. It doesn’t suit their personality or their strengths. So, they grow up thinking, I’ll never be a leader, but they still feel a lot of external pressure to try to lead. Well, we don’t need millions of leaders. We do need everyone to have leadership. Without it, teams won’t thrive. Everyone must understand that they have something important to contribute to a team, and when they do that, they are exerting their unique form of leadership. When that exertion results in someone doing better, that is a leadership experience. The more people who understand that leadership is theirs for the taking, the more successful our teams will be and the more confident our teammates will be, as well.

We need to talk more about leadership and learn to recognize the stories that showcase our talents. The more we talk about our leadership experiences, the more we own our own stories. And, when that happens, you can pull out those skills more intentionally when they are needed.

Tim is a member of his high school student council. He ran for president, but lost. He is disappointed because he thinks he needs the presidency to show college admissions counselors that he is a go-getter. During one unorganized council meeting Tim noticed that Jane and Lauren, 9th graders, had removed themselves from the conversation. He texts Jane. “You ok?” Jane texts back “We are quitting counsel. We hate these meetings. Nothing gets done.” Tim says “Tell someone how you feel.” She says, “It isn’t worth it.” Tim pulls aside the president and uses his diplomacy to encourage the president (without offending her) to think of different ways to handle the meeting. He then encourages Jane and Lauren to come one more time. Jane and Lauren stay with council for four years, and Jane eventually becomes a very successful council president. Tim’s strength of empathy and diplomacy has made a difference. When he writes about it on his resume or in an interview, he can say:

Student Council Representative: Personally responsible for influencing cabinet to organize meetings to enable shared vision, allowing for greater commitment/motivation from team members.

When he talks about it on an interview, he tells this story and he how used his strengths of empathy and diplomacy to produce outcomes, and he would use those same strengths in the position he is interviewing for.

We should all be striving to develop young people who understand their leadership qualities and experiences. Everyone has the capacity for leadership. Being the leader does not automatically mean that you are using leadership. In fact, a leader without leadership is a hallow vessel that no one wants to ride in calm or stormy weather. When we ask our children or students to gather leadership experience, let’s mean what we say – that we value using your strengths to make a positive impact on a team, regardless of whether you are in the front, middle or back of the boat.

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