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May 11, 2012

Leading questions

Contemporary obsession with leadership has muddled the notion’s true meaning.

Define leadership. How would you describe your leadership style? What does leadership mean to you? But please, save your practiced and perfected answer for your Metcalf interview next week. This week, let’s just talk about leadership in real terms. Let’s talk about what “leadership” is—and more importantly, what “leadership” means to us.

For one, it’s clear that leadership has become an obsession. Forget this weekend’s Scav Hunt; we all know that the biggest item on our list is a leadership role in at least five brand-name institutions. [500 points, plus 10 bonus points for club founders]

Leadership has also become a sort of last-ditch attempted answer to the “man in the gray flannel suit” epidemic that began by terrorizing corporate egos and has now trickled down to college and high school campuses across the country, transforming us all from conformist corporate slaves into egocentric but oh-so-important “leaders.”

Over the past couple of years, RSO Executive Boards have accordingly ballooned to accommodate members’ growing managerial ambitions. Though it’s difficult to imagine a club with ten members needing an Executive Board of five, that’s exactly what’s happening—every single person who does something realizes that she needs to have a title to account for it. Today, you can’t make monthly posters without being a “Director of Design,” or take twenty minutes to put them up without being an “Outreach Coordinator.” Today, it takes nothing less than a “Webmaster” to set up a Facebook event page; nothing less than a “Secretary” to send out two-sentence reminders about this week’s meeting.

The number of distinct RSOs has also surged. In addition to Student Government’s plethora of committees and the many groups still awaiting approval, ORCSA’s RSO database currently lists over 500 RSOs—each with its own set of founders, leaders, and executive members, each claiming to cater to a niche of student interests all its own. But it’s hard to see a genuine, pressing need for our campus to house at least three distinct consulting clubs, three debate teams, and twenty different dance troupes.

More striking, however, is the effect that our relationship with leadership is having on our notion of commitments in general. Rather than encouraging us to engage with one or two organizations where we may not earn any kind of managerial role until third or fourth year, we’re pressured to quit while we’re at it and commit to something where we’re sure to be an Executive by next month. From my own experience, many of the people who express interest in working with the Undergraduate Law Review contact us about “possible editorial positions” or “leadership roles,” and not about simply contributing articles to the publication. But a publication needs more articles than it does editors; without content, there’s nothing to edit, let alone publish.

In addition to approving every RSO under the sun, save Occupy, our University promotes this kind of thinking through its ever-growing offering of “leadership” opportunities – the Student Leadership Institute that sought to “make leaders out of 25 students,” for example, or the International Leadership Council that aims to “connect the leaders of tomorrow.”

However, it’s clear that the problem lies not with the University, per se; our school is simply preparing us for a real world—corporate, academic, or otherwise—that is obsessed with leadership.

Despite the appropriate interest that surrounded the vocal departure of Goldman Sachs’s Vice President Greg Smith, for example, many were equally quick to point out that, hey, Goldman actually has 5,412 employees at or above the level of a “Vice President.” Even though most of these “Vice Presidents” don’t actually wield that much power (some are even deemed entry-level roles), most companies continue to hire them in droves, leading to the addition of emphatic words like “Senior” or “Executive”—and for the really important people, even “Senior Executive”—to emphasize when someone actually does something. Microsoft has a President, an Executive Vice President, a Senior Vice President, and a Corporate Vice President. Oracle has a CEO, two Presidents, and twenty-three Executive Vice Presidents.

This obsession with leadership breeds organizations that ultimately consist of nothing but their executive boards. It blurs lines of responsibility and feelings of accountability, producing groups of equally egoistic “leaders” who can’t actually get anything done. Though this paradigm lets everyone list “leadership role x” on her LinkedIn profile and answer that crucial question about leadership experience, the reality is that we can’t have our ego cake and eat it, too. At least, we need to bake it first.

Both on and off campus, greater value should be placed on achievements rather than appellations—on hard work, perseverance, and innovation, rather than the tenacious pursuit of a tough-sounding title. Employers are already trying to do this by asking prospective employees what they did in a role rather than what the role was called. Our University has also launched competitions like the Social Innovation Competition, which emphasize hard work, innovation, and creativity above meaningless titles. But these are not enough. Hard work and innovation should be esteemed at all levels —top, middle, and bottom.

Of course, it’ll take a major cultural shift to help make this happen. Until then, we—students, RSOs, the University—will have to keep fanning the flames of ever-inflating titles and the ever-growing emphasis on leadership roles.

It’s not that “everyone isn’t cut out to be a leader,” and it’s not that leadership isn’t important or isn’t hard work. It is, and rightfully should be. But that’s not the point; the point is that a leadership title is, in itself, a meaningless moniker. Even more difficult than holding a title is being successful, dedicated, and influential. It’s even harder to persevere in the face of a challenge or to express creativity on one’s own without the safety net of status.

We are always told not to judge a book by its cover, so why are we now being pushed to judge an opportunity by its title? Ingenuity doesn’t need a title; ingenuity is a title all of its own.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year in the College majoring in economics.

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