SCHWARTZ: Enough with leadership

The Gadfly

American society, and Yale in particular, has a leadership fetish. Republican candidates regularly bash the president for his failure to show leadership (whatever that means), fellowship and internship applications regularly instruct applicants to describe their leadership experiences and Yale University’s three-sentence mission statement asserts unequivocally that our purpose is to “educate [students] for leadership in scholarship, the professions, and society.” Naturally, all movements need leaders and founders, but, increasingly, it seems that our collective obsession with leadership for its own sake undermines the very goals to which our leaders purportedly lead us.

Everywhere we turn at Yale, leadership is the prism through which our success and worth are evaluated. Professors praise and academic prizes reward classroom leadership. Student culture is far worse: I watch classmate after classmate fall into a sickening rat race of institutional ladder-climbing.

The message we are receiving is overwhelming: If by the time you graduate you have not been the musical director of an a cappella group, the editor-in-chief of a publication, the captain of a sports team, the president of a cultural group and the chairman of a political society, then you probably shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.

On its most basic level, leadership culture suffocates individual students, pushing us in ill-fitting directions and creating bizarre incentives. How many of us find ourselves devoting hundreds of hours into causes we care little about in a desperate climb to official leadership? In the process, we lose hundreds of irretrievable hours we may have spent studying and serving causes closer to our hearts. Worse, we perform our duties shallowly and opaquely, looking for accolades and positive feedback rather than genuine accomplishment. This is an impressionable time, and these are the worst sorts of work habits we could possibly be forming.

The problem runs deeper, affecting and afflicting relationships. How many of us have watched friends drift away from organizations as they realize that prospects for advancement are limited and so determine that their time is better spent elsewhere? Before our eyes, our culture breeds the brash opportunism that shatters friendships, triggers contempt and spawns mistrust.

Far worse than what this obsession with leadership does to individual students is what it does to the causes we claim to serve. Is YIRA really doing its best to educate and engage students about international relations when students are constantly jockeying for leadership roles? Is the Yale Political Union optimally fostering debate and political discourse when parties and members are constantly preparing for elections?

Then there is the needless fracturing of institutions and subsequent dilution of organizational strength. Yale College currently lists 441 officially registered undergraduate organizations, and many more teams and institutions are unregistered. With an undergraduate population of 5,300, this is completely out of proportion. The proliferation has got to stop.

It seems unimaginable that each organization is contributing something genuine. Is the Committee for Freedom adding something that the Libertarians aren’t already offering? Indeed, it sometimes seems that there are more conservative undergraduate institutions than there are undergraduate conservatives. More organizations means more leadership positions (and more UOFC funding), but it also means more bureaucracy and less substantive work.

If everyone is an organizational president doing the leading, I can’t help but ask: So who is following? There is a medieval kabbalistic phrase: “There can be no king without a people.” The entire concept of leadership is meaningless if no one follows. If everyone leads, then we are all individually leading ourselves nowhere. Following well is an essential part of getting things done. Yet no one seems to be glorifying the followers.

We need a fundamental change in culture. We need to move from a valorization of leadership to a celebration of accomplishment. Institutions need to praise the job well done and the part well played, regardless of whether that part is a cog in the machine or the entire mechanism’s inventor. The ancients understood the world as a harmony; we each have a role, and performing it well should be our highest goal.

We need to abandon the vacuous language that makes fostering abstract, morally neutral concepts like leadership or service into our central mission. We should ask: service to what? Leadership of whom, and for what purpose? Surely the content — the purposes one serves or to which one leads — is what’s important.

We need to refocus on the substantive issues and recommit ourselves to asserting positive values. So when you find yourself praising someone for leadership, stop and think whether it is the leadership or the cause that ought to be praised. And if it’s the latter, maybe you ought to save some praise for the followers.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at


  • grumpyalum

    Looking at the undergraduate organization list seems a bit of a farcical way to look at leadership. Let’s take a look at the SAVE THE WORLD CLUB – trust me on this, none of us really care about ‘leadership’ of effectively a group of friends sitting together in Commons!


  • RexMottram08

    I actually think Yishai stumbles into making a decent point or two.

    But this is just dreadful writing.

  • River_Tam

    There is an obvious irony to Mr. Schwartz attempting to lead a charge against the valorization of leaders.

    • eli2015

      It’s only ironic if Mr. Schwartz hopes to be praised for his leadership, in and of itself. Mr. Schwartz’s point was that leaders ought to be praised for the causes they champion, not for the act of leading.

  • eli2015
  • kdaysandtou

    Now that the requisite misery of RexMottram/RiverTam is out of the way, we can praise Yishai for his column. “Whither leadership?” is a question that should be asked more here. Yalies are too busy doing at the expense of thinking, critiquing, and discussing with others.

  • alipov

    I agree with Mr. Schwartz about the obsession with leadership in both the country and here at Yale. “Institutions need to praise the job well done and the part well played, regardless of whether that part is a cog in the machine or the entire mechanism’s inventor.” Very well said.

  • YaleMom

    Now that this guy has convinced everyone not to be leaders, you can be YPU president, Editor of the YDN, and and Chairlady of the POR and POL, dearest. Your time to shine — go for it, Ashley!

    • phantomllama

      I am so happy that YaleMom is back. I had missed Ashley.

  • yalengineer

    I strongly disagree that there is an overemphasis on leadership on this campus. I was a strong and proud follower during all of my years on campus and I felt that many other students were good and noble followers and the role of a being a cog in the machine is vastly more appreciated on this campus than what I have seen on others.

    Do not undervalue the importance of friendship and loyalty. The YDN and YPU is run on the backs of 2nd in commands and willing followers and incidentally they do a very good job of it. Contrast that with a purely startup culture where followers come and go as they please and the “leader” essentially has to do everything themselves. Organizations are run on camaraderie much more than this article presumes.

  • penny_lane

    God forbid anyone expect the President of the United States to show leadership! Seriously, even liberals admit that Obama has failed to show leadership. He has his finger to the wind, feeling out what liberals want and what conservatives don’t want so he can walk the fine middle road, rather than taking the helm and giving us direction.

    With regards to the rest of the article:
    You ask who is following. Well, let’s do the math: 5,300-441=4859. 4859/5300=~.92. 8% (probably an overestimate as there may be some overlap), then, of students are leaders of an organization at any given time. That’s really too many? It seems to me that 92% of the students who participate in extracurriculars are learning how to find their place within the group, not how to be Supreme Dictator for Life. This is a very good thing: Yale students are rightly expected to demonstrate the capacity for leadership, but once you start applying for jobs, you’ll realize that the capacity for teamwork is just as valued if not more so both in work settings and in graduate school.

    • Yale131313

      Except given that most group leaders lead said groups junior year, the percentage of followers drops somewhere around two thirds. That seems a little low, wouldn’t you agree?

      • yalengineer

        Are you suggesting that seniors can’t be followers?

        • Yale131313

          I think my point is that counting the entire population of the student body seems off, as people usually have a leadership position for one year or one semester, not their entire time here. Thus, in order to calculate what percentage of people are leaders, you should probably just count how many people are leaders *at some point in their Yale career.* Counting the junior class makes sense for that.

    • elijah

      That is horrendous math. Many people are leaders of multiple campus groups at one time, and many campus grups have more than one leader.

      • yalengineer

        I think penny does account for those situations in her analysis. You should read it again.

      • penny_lane

        I’ll admit that math is not my gift, but the arithmetic, at least, is definitely correct. Make of it what you will.

  • jorge_julio

    my god, I love this. one realizes that the people who are constantly trying to acquire new titles ultimately have no real interests.

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