Though we had been talking about the surface level things for a bit (how our days were going, what the weather was like today, etc.), I was surprised when the student in my office suddenly admitted that she doesn’t view herself as a leader. This surprised me, especially, because the student was in my senior seminar leadership course.
“I just don’t see myself as a leader like everyone else in the class. I work 40 hours a week as a manager at a retail store and I work as a Wellness Coach on campus part time… but, I’m not a member of all these clubs on campus or the president of anything.”
This is not the first time I am hearing this. When I asked a student why they ran for Secretary of a club rather than President, the student shrugged her shoulders and said “I’m not a leader like that.” Prior to that, a black, female student said that she wanted to get involved on campus but never had time so they just worked as an Office Assistant rather than doing all the campus clubs and “leadership stuff.”
Our society constructs leaders as being upper-class, extroverted, assertive white males in positional roles of leadership. Students with these identities have not had the chance to define what leadership means for themselves, and students outside of these identities have a harder time recognizing their leadership ability at all.
What are some ways that we can support our students to develop their own definitions of leadership that are in alignment with their values, strengths, interests, and personal identities?
Get Them to NAME Their Assumptions
When the student told me that they don’t consider themselves a leader, my first questions were “Who do you consider to be a leader? What personality traits do you think all leaders must have?” Immediately, the student began to list off qualities like assertiveness, extroversion, and a positional role on campus- all identities that the student does not hold. Ask reflective questions that will help your students to become critical of their views of what leadership can be. If time permits, consider meeting regularly with the student to see how their concept of leadership changes over time. If not, suggest that they have conversations with past supervisors and mentors about defining leadership, and continue to engage in reflection as they develop their understanding of leadership.
Hold Yourself Accountable for Creating an Inclusive Leadership Environment
We must focus our efforts on student leadership development for positional leaders and non-positional leaders. This is not a practice that many of us are used to, so it is important to reflect on our own identities and practice before we try to hold these conversations. Consider these questions:
(1) What are your own personal biases about leaders? Where did you get those ideas from? Do these ideas align with your leadership style? How can you help students to develop their own leadership definitions when you hold different identities from them?
(2) How often do you engage with the members of your Hall Council or residents in your building to talk about their leadership development? Are there opportunities for them to gain leadership training?
(3) How are you collaborating with other offices in your division to gain knowledge of the needs of certain populations? Are there ways to create programs and initiatives in your building that help students to re-define what leadership means to them?
Expose Students to Different Ways of Practicing Leadership
For a long time, my concept of leadership was based in stereotypical masculinity. Though I wanted to be bubbly, humorous, creative, and empathetic in my professional life- I felt that I had to be assertive, strategic, and stoic to succeed. This changed as mentors provided me with books, films, and connections that changed my understanding of leadership. Eventually, I began to seek out my own leadership representation which helped me to realize that my style of leadership was valid! What kinds of leaders are we inviting into our Residence Halls to speak to students? What kinds of leaders do we constantly refer to in our work? How can we help to expose students to leaders who have similar identities, values, and interests to their own?
At my institution, we recently held our 2nd annual Sophomore Inclusive Leadership Retreat. As a facilitator, I got to work with two colleagues to lead a group of students through activities that helped them to recognize their privileged and marginalized identities, and develop their understanding of leadership. One student identified as Latina and was very vocal about her Puerto-Rican upbringing throughout the day. By the end, I was glad to hear that the retreat had helped her to reconsider her understanding of leadership.
She said: “You know that old quote ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you’re going?’ I think that leadership is often framed like that… but after this workshop I am realizing that it should be both. It really matters where you came from AND where you’re going.’”
Though leadership is rarely tied to social justice work, I think it is important to know that when we help students to define leadership for themselves, we are affirming their experiences, their backgrounds- who they are. This re-writing is an important component of social justice work that I know all students can benefit from.