The impetus for this post is a gripe I have about student organization constitutions. Many universities require student groups to generate a constitution as a prerequisite for recognition. Yet how many of our offices have constitutions? How many of our campuses have constitutions? Does any group you belong to anywhere–besides the United States of America and maybe the Rotary Club–have a constitution? (Do an Internet search on “organizations with constitutions” and you’ll get a slew of university “how to” pages for their student groups.)
My primary concern: relevance.
Leadership/followership education is challenging, messy, complicated work. There’s no manual, no surefire way to guarantee success. But because it’s so important—so vital—this work can also be very rewarding. We must approach leadership education thoughtfully by creating relevant and meaningful ways for students to learn and engage. We need to help them see connections between all of their leadership/followership experiences–class projects, part-time jobs, families, student organizations, future careers, and more.
Here are a few things for us to ponder:
1) Effective groups have a shared purpose. In his TED Talk on “How great leaders inspire action,” Simon Sinek discusses the power of people who connect around mutual beliefs and dreams. How do we help students identify and articulate purpose and then use purpose to form and ground groups? Would developing a statement of purpose be more centering than hammering away at a constitution?
2) Effective groups have active participants. How do we help student groups establish organization norms–member-generated and mutually agreed upon standards for participation? And then, how do we work with students to identify and address unsatisfactory performance in their groups and to confront, coach, and even “fire” when appropriate? Some faculty members are now allowing groups to remove project-team members who fail to meet agreed-upon standards. Students generally appreciate this option (and use it), and it teaches a valuable skill (and lesson).
3) Effective groups understand that problem solving is a process. Simply saying that food service or parking sucks isn’t enough. How do we coach students to explore why something is the way it is, first? Our campus library houses our University’s archives, where students can learn things like why our institution once had a child-care center and now doesn’t. Many colleges have well-known “historians,” faculty and staff members who have lived through years of changes and enjoy talking about them. Solutions that show a grasp of the past have a better chance of gaining approval.
4) Do we overuse the term “student leader” when we could/should be saying “students when they’re leading”? When we speak about “student leaders,” we are often referring to students with titles–Resident Assistants, Student Government officers, etc. These students are certainly leading in this single capacity; however, they are also participating in groups led by others. They are following. When non-titled students hear us speak about our “student leaders,” they often don’t see themselves, even though they may, in fact, be leading without a title.
5) How are we learning about leading and following? We have access to much wisdom through TED Talks, blogs, and other resources (all of which can be used with students, too). Are we practicing what we teach? Students are watching us. They see how we are leading and following, both in terms of actual behaviors and skills and in terms of the quality of decisions being made.
What are your experiences with leadership and followership? What initiatives and tools are having the most impact? How have your leadership programs evolved? What work still needs to be done?
Lisa Tetzloff is the Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.