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 firstname.lastname@example.org.