On Tuesday, President Barack Obama and the administration of Student Leadership Training shared a very special thing: a flat audience. The president quipped about “spilled milk” (and a lowly speechwriter returned forever to the mailroom) to a groaning Congress. The facilitators of the SLT lecture stumbled through the night with a combination of sporadic seriousness and self-deprecating humor.
First and foremost, the fundamental convolutedness of the training project is embodied in the ridiculous decision to host a raffle at the end of each evening. At the end of a lecture on arguably the most serious issue a collegiate culture could face — and one which was prompted by a federal lawsuit against our sexual climate — why on earth are we tossing prizes out to the crowd?
A cynical observer may see this just as a casual bribe — a tacit acknowledgement that no one wants to be there. Even with the highest benefit of the doubt, the raffle is a confusing injection of levity for an issue whose most vocal proponents have overburdened it with sternness. (Remember that spat of columns last year?) Following this rationale, I would expect to see T-shirt guns at the next round of freshman Camp Yale seminars.
Beyond the simple dictates of common sense and basic human compassion, the 75-minute presentation was largely without content. One could speculate about the true reasons why these sessions were mandated, but it is nearly impossible to think that the administrators were attempting to actually train leaders.
However, the most interesting and revealing portion of the evening came in the opening remarks by professor Kathryn Lofton in Tuesday’s session regarding the general notion of leadership. Lofton, consciously or not, spoke directly to the Obama generation — and, judging by the swath of approving nods and grins across the room, her definition of leadership resonated.
Lofton first stated that a leader must be listened to. There is no such thing as the quiet leader. He needs the stage. He needs an audience. He is the rhetorician. The Calvin Coolidge model of quiet, temperate, principled competence is long dead — we hunger for the leader who hungers for our spotlight.
A leader must not only detail the world as he sees it but make us want to see it that way too. It is difficult historically and impossible in the range of our lifetimes to find a better example of this than President Obama. His simply giving his State of the Union address caused Yale students’ Facebook newsfeeds to be overrun with unfaltering adoration for a job well done — that is clear proof of his ability.
Lastly, and most importantly, Lofton said a leader must tell you what you are missing rather than what you have. A leader is a giver — even in the literal sense.
But here the troublesome reality lies. At no point in the evening was a leader called to stand for truth (a thorny topic at this school), for principle or profundity, for anything besides prominence and popularity.
On Tuesday, though, Obama certainly heeded Lofton’s advice. Just like a 21st-century Roman patrician tossing bread out to the coliseum or a demigod who would rain manna upon the masses if only Congress let him, Obama outlined a world whose only true deficit was additional legislation.
He spoke and the nation listened. And, most likely, they will listen in 2012. Following the Lofton model — one morally unconcerned with onerous realities — his crafted picture of the world will stick. It’s the product of a careful, calculated charisma.
By the end of the night, both at Yale and in Washington, no one sufficiently answered the question, “Why lead?” Here, it was simply assumed that we, as Yale students, should. As students, our respective rises to power are frequently represented as inevitable. Notions to the contrary are not as much disproven as simply ignored.
In a lecture that began with Provost Peter Salovey’s assurances that we were already the “future leaders of the world” and that concluded with the repeated reminder that we should always, without exception, be comfortable with our already perfect personalities, there is little reason why a criterion for leadership would be necessary.
This congratulatory kowtow at the Student Leadership Training — whose necessity was so pressing that students were mandated to participate — is the very antithesis of leadership. It is a failure in its obilgation to provide the vital guidance and instruction needed by a collegiate student body.
When we are consistently and consciously being prepared to lead, we become either unaware when we are being shepherded or oblivious of when it is right to merge into the crowd. As a generation told that we are perfect as-is and the ills of the world are ours to freely construct away, perhaps leadership training is not what we need. Maybe Yale needs, sometimes, to teach us when to follow.
Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.