“Are leaders born or are they made?” I cannot remember how many times I have been asked that question in various undergraduate classes, but I remember exactly how I answered it every single time: Leaders are made, of course. I may not have always had a fully formed leadership philosophy, but I always thought there was probably a right answer to this question.
For the longest time, I thought leadership was something performed by a single person within a larger group. I also believed it was something a person either did or did not have, regardless of how many leadership classes were available. Looking back on it, my leadership philosophy seemed more like that of a clichéd sports writer, than an emerging student affairs professional. But then a funny thing happened. During my job search towards the end of graduate school in 2012, I applied for a position that involved teaching a leadership class. Knowing that my graduate assistantship ended in May and I was desperate to find a job, I started to think critically about how I viewed leadership. “You are either a leader or a follower” seemed like a philosophy that would not earn me an on-campus interview.
I thought about my leadership journey, particularly during my time in graduate school. I had moved hundreds of miles away to attend school, enrolled in classes that challenged me as a person and professional, took on different types of assistantships and practicums, and had come out the other side more confident in my abilities as a student affairs professional. Something changed between the time I went to graduate school and the time I left it. This led me to start rethinking what leadership looked like and who could be a leader. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was to first stop thinking about leadership as being this ideal that only certain people possessed and imparted upon the rest of us. Maybe I have watched too many movies and sports (and, if I am being honest, movies about sports). I had to reframe leadership away from being about the heroic authority figure simply saying something inspirational. That kind of leadership can work, but it may not be sustainable. It does not necessarily create ownership by those people being led.
I started to rethink leadership as members of a team building community and getting peers to buy into a larger, shared vision to help the common good (although, admittedly, the use of overly dramatic speeches is still fun). Every group needs leadership, however, instead of one person being THE leader within a group, many people can play leadership roles within the same group to maximize potential. One way I tried to emphasize this is point in my class was by making it clear that everyone there was already a leader. The role of the class was not to make them leaders, but to develop their skills and abilities. This was an adjustment for some students, as not everyone is comfortable referring to themselves as a leader. The students demonstrated a commitment of taking on a leadership role within their campus and community by simply enrolling in this class. Unlike math or science, there is no formula for leadership. I could not teach the students the one way to become a great leader. What I could do was provide them with opportunities to reflect on their leadership growth and potential, while providing some tools to help them continue their leadership development in the future.
My leadership philosophy is still evolving. With every new responsibility, I am learning more about my leadership strengths and weaknesses, and I am seeking out opportunities to continue developing whenever possible. I truly believe anyone can be a leader if they are committed to creating positive change. In the same way some of my students struggled with calling themselves leaders, I still think it sounds weird to call myself a leader (even writing this post feels somewhat like a inadvertent humblebrag). Nevertheless, by embracing that role, I hope to be a part of positive change within my campus and community.