Kosslyn: Resist ‘leaderliness’

“Do you want to be a student leader?”

I had been walking along, enjoying the spring and minding my own business, when the man behind the plastic table asked me that question. The table was covered in pamphlets; he was hawking some leadership conference.

Mystified, I replied, “Well, I don’t know. What does it mean to be a student leader?”

He blinked, shrugged, shuffled and turned to another passerby: “Do you want to be a student leader?”

“Yes …” came the passerby’s intrigued reply.

Another victim of the allure of “leaderliness.”

Leaderliness — the seductive surface characteristics of leadership — seems to be in ample supply on campus.

And leaderliness isn’t just about esoteric conferences. A few weeks ago I attended an entrepreneurially flavored technology lecture. The lecture was followed by a reception, during which it emerged that over half the audience was there to recruit for their business startups. Yet not a single person was interested in participating in anybody else’s startups. So everyone went home disappointed.

This is silly.

Our over-emphasis on leaderliness — on organizing other people, on affixing “President” or “Founder” labels in front of our names, on basking in popular acclaim — gets in the way of actual progress toward goals.

The problem extends beyond tech entrepreneurship and into the Yale College Council, the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee and their ilk. Over the last two years I’ve had a vantage point — an appointed seat on the UOFC board — to witness the results of student-government elections. Occasionally a campaign promise comes to fruition (Bryan Twarek ’10, this year’s UOFC chair, has been unusually good at that), but, once elected, students generally become preoccupied by their week-to-week activities and falter on their bigger goals.

It’s interesting to go back and read the campaign platforms of bygone officers. In the last two years, the News lauded one winning candidate’s platform of “eliminating the deadline for Credit/D/Fail conversion to grades, expanding the residential college seminar program through outreach to more potential instructors and pursuing a late-night dining schedule for at least one residential college dining hall.” Another winning candidate was endorsed for his goals of “working toward gender-neutral housing, revamping senseless dining-hall policies [and] enhancing study-abroad programs.” As it turned out, the YCC was unable (at least as far as I can tell) to significantly sway University policy on any of these ideas.

I don’t mean to pick on those particular officers, though; extremely well-intentioned campaign promises perennially fall by the wayside. That’s partly because campaign promises usually spring from youthful optimism or campaign calculus, not careful analysis.

But there’s another reason: While certainly well-intentioned, candidates don’t often run to achieve concrete goals for students or the University — they run to be leaderly. And, once elected, they often bask in their leaderliness rather than focus on their stated goals.

For too many, it seems that leaderliness is an end unto itself.

The prevalence of this misconception is not surprising. The problem is practically in the water. Take President Levin’s address to freshmen at the start of this academic year. Levin used the words “leader,” “lead” and “leadership” 16 times. “Citizen” and “participate” appeared zero and one time, respectively. Freshmen walked away with the presidential words echoing in their ears: “I would also encourage each of you to be a leader.”

Levin’s remarks had a constructive facet. The address hit the core when Levin said, “True leadership means drawing the best out of others and inspiring them toward a worthy goal.” That’s a good definition — there’s nothing in it about getting others to enact one’s will, getting elected or appointed to some office, or even getting public recognition. True leadership is about attending to other people and building toward shared objectives.

It’s getting on that time of the year when undergraduates will start running for student government. If you, dear reader, are an undergraduate with objectives for Yale and the ability to pay attention to those around you, please consider throwing your hat in the ring.

If you think that $5,000 parties are a tragic waste of the University’s money, please consider going in.

If you think that $5,000 parties are the lifeblood of the undergraduate community, please consider going in.

If you want Yale to be a place where quirky ideas are easily funded while mainstream parties fend for themselves, please consider going in.

If you want Yale to be a place where dance parties flourish and eccentric projects find their own way, please consider going in.

But if you want nothing more than a trivial title and a modicum of aimless power, please stay the heck out.

Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.

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