Must Everyone Be a “Leader” to Succeed?

It seemed simple enough. Great grades, well-rounded, likable.

Teens don't always fit the mold. My son’s list of extracurricular activities included one team sport for a number of years, involvement in the arts, unique special interests, and a consistent willingness to help others. Garnering an honor or two with these attributes shouldn’t be an issue, right?

And yet last week, while filling out a grid intended to summarize my son’s high school accomplishments (to assist with college applications), he was hard-pressed to complete the section on Leadership. My son doesn’t “slot” neatly into categories, like many of us, in a culture that is hell-bent on one-dimensional classifications.

Redefining leadership

Is the designation of “leader” a matter of the title? The loudness of the voice or its clarity? The number who hear its message?

How do we define leadership for ourselves, and for our children? I’m not talking about the attributes that form a good leader – but the role of leader? Why do we consider it superior to being, say… a diplomatic team member? Or perhaps a talented individual contributor?

If everyone was a leader, who would follow? And if there weren’t independent spirits (driven to pursue their passions and thus fill our world with their scholarly, scientific, and creative output), where would we be then?

  • Where are we as a culture without musicians, film makers, inventors, poets?
  • Is this not leadership of a different sort? If not, what should we call it?

Traditional leadership - Business, Politics, Sports Teams. Is that it?Leadership is typically defined in the context of politics or business in our culture. Its definition includes words like “guidance, supervision, establishing direction.”

When I look up the word “guidance,” it refers to leading, and also to providing counsel. Counsel begins to take us in a new direction – the gray area of interpersonal skills, and qualities like empathy.

Should “leadership” be applied more liberally to a broader range of activities, and interpreted in a more fluid context less tied to style but no less powerful in its reach? And what about moral leadership – so vital to the quality of our lives and our future?

Redefining leadership – beyond politics, beyond business

We are a culture that applauds our “take charge” individuals, that gives high marks to the role of leader, particularly when you carry the title of Captain of the football team or President of the Photography Club, not to mention, as adults, wanting to wear the mantel of Director, Vice-President, President, CEO.

We encourage our kids to do more than excel at participation. We push them to “run the show,” to compete for the titles. Even looking at the college application process (and long before, the options that arise to propel our kids through the system towards greater opportunity) – there’s always a section on “leadership,” just as there is a section on awards and honors.

What about those individuals – of any age – who accomplish outside the binary interpretation of leaders and followers (implying winners and losers)? What about distinctions – and standing out in the crowd – through qualities of interpersonal skill, artistic accomplishment,  independent thought and spirit – rather than traditional roles of leadership?

How do we reinterpret and expand the notion of leadership?

Society’s contributors by any other name

Why do we view leadership through such a narrow lens?

  • Are leaders to be rewarded over free thinkers, creative contributors, great team players?
  • If you motivate and encourage, are you not a leader?
  • If you have unique talents that enrich and inspire, are you not a leader?
  • Is this a different sort of leadership, or something else?
  • Shouldn’t distinguishing oneself be as valued as the traditional laurels of “running something?”

Is our definition of leadership “off?”

Do you stand out in a crowd quietly?

We applaud creativity in our kids. But then what? One of my sons falls into the traditional mode of “leader.” He always has. He’s outgoing and a born communicator. He naturally motivates, takes charge, takes on challenge, solves problems, persuades others to follow his lead, and gets things done.

My younger son is not a leader in the conventional sense, yet he draws people to him, quietly, through his creativity, his wicked sense of humor, his willingness to help when he sees someone who needs it. He never toots his own horn; he doesn’t think that way. He distinguishes himself routinely – but as a team player or individual contributor. He isn’t about “running the show;” he is about pursuing what he excels at, quite naturally.

Eventually, we “spun” his non-standard accomplishments into a take charge mode. Sufficient for the form, anyway. Yet we both saw, as he was filling out a standardized grid to summarize his high school career, his accomplishments simply didn’t fit neatly. And it occurred to me that this teenager of considerable distinction is, and always has been, hard to categorize. And this becomes more problematic as time goes on, in a culture that sizes up its citizens, slaps on a single label, and moves on to the next in line.

Individual freedoms, the value of the individual

Here’s my concern, in a nutshell.

Performance expectations for teens - not a simple matter. For a country that purports to value the individual, independent spirit, and speaks to pursuing our passions, we don’t put our money where our societal mouth is. We have no rewarding of qualities of distinction, rather than titles of so-called accomplishment. We have no infrastructure to support those ideals – beyond the traditional role of “leader,” and perhaps “entrepreneur” – but only if monetary success follows.

Our educational system does not accommodate qualities of character; are there “outstanding achievement awards” for what a kid has taught himself against all odds? For thriving despite an abusive home? For stepping in and mentoring classmates without being asked? For seeking out a means to study music when there is no money to do so, and then developing his talent? For creating short films to rally his friends around laughter?

Yes, attentive and talented teachers do recognize children who need or want something more. They nurture those children, while they can, as best they can. As for our individual (non-categorizable) kids, as they move into adolescence and adulthood, how do we tag them for distinction, so they can move through the system with some degree of opportunity?

Support for the arts - what does it say about a culture what makes this low priority? How do we – at the very least – not let them fall through the cracks, or give up their dreams?

Musicians, painters, writers, dancers – are they not essential to our sensory and spiritual enrichment? Do they not hold up the social mirror, if not the moral compass of a society? Do we irrevocably handicap these vital sources of cultural richness because they don’t “fit” into employment structures, and thus have little to no access to financial stability, to health care, or to other social benefits like insurance?

Our collective cultural soul

My morning musing has wandered far afield, admittedly. I know the life I lead as a freelance writer – not part of any “social safety net.” It is a hard life.

I know my son’s quality of character, and his many talents. They defy the one-note interpretation of leadership, the standard system of educational awards, and we’ll need to be creative – together, as a team – in “marketing” him as he applies to colleges. And so my mind flows from an oversimplified form to its cultural assumptions and underpinnings, those embedded in our educational system, our crumbling employment structures, and our social systems that are, simply put, woefully insufficient.

I believe in the vitality of creative spirits and individual contribution, and I worry for the ability of our creative communities to survive.

I believe in the critical participation of team players, and I worry about the lack of reward and appreciation  that they receive.

I believe in the qualities of interpersonal relationship – compassion, generosity, empathy, honor, humor – that makes everything better in a frightening world. Men and women with these qualities often become good counselors, good clergy, good teachers, good parents, and “good employees,” who just manage to get by.

I grieve the fact that we do not seem to speak of these qualities, much less articulate them as valuable, “and put our money where our mouth is.”

I worry for our collective cultural soul, for both my sons, and for all our children.

Redefining success?

What does it take to succeed in today’s world?

  • Do you know how you define success?
  • Is it compensated in a way that allows you to make a living?
  • Are you molding your child into the traditional role of “leader” whether she wants it or not?
  • Are you affirming the qualities that make you – or your children – whole, contributing, happy, whatever title may or may not fit?

My older son is a maverick, an independent spirit in his own way, and possesses traditional leadership skills which will likely bring him traditional success. My younger son is another story. I hope his creativity, his wit, his generosity of spirit will serve him well – and allow him to make a living.

So how do we rejuvenate the value of the individual, and devise an infrastructure that doesn’t work against the creative spirit? One in which all our children can thrive, and not just those who are neatly slotted, tracked, and moved through a narrow system of success?

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  1. says

    The problems with the way we try to fit our square pegs into non-square holes… As you say, if everyone is a leader, who are they leading? For a long time, I kept saying – it isn’t if you get time on the field, it’s that you are a member of the team. Unfortunately, society could care less about the members of the team unless the team is making money or winning championships.

    Parents need to allow children to search out their own “success” and build their own identity. Back in 2006, I mused on and on about teenage identity – – as I had allowed my daughter to wrap her identity up in her sports accomplishments. These were not small accomplishments as she was then on a Division 1 women’s soccer team. The problem was she had issue defining herself outside of that arena.

    To allow a child/student to find his/her own way, own definition of self is probably more important than any matrix or resume of “things” the student has done. Unfortunately, there is no way for a subjective weighing of this knowledge when it comes to college applications.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, jobs are few and far between. Education is either a way to assist in that, a true desire for the young adult, at times a way to “mark time” until the economy improves, and still no guarantee whatsoever that making a living will be possible.

      And many remain between the rock and the hard place: without an employment relationship, any form of social safety net is literally unattainable. So sense of self is great (I’m a firm believer in it), but these issues of the individual’s ability to survive cannot be separated from issues of ideology and politics.

  2. says

    I think you’re pretty much right. However, I remember answering my college applications the way I wanted to and not the way the administration expected me to do it. I imagine (but I don’t know since I don’t make those decisions) that admission officers are looking for kids who think outside the box. Thus, I’m not sure they really are looking for traditional examples of leadership. I suspect they’d probably appreciate hearing whatever sort of leadership your son thinks is relevant to his experience. Like you said, leadership can mean lots of things.

    Now, outside of that environment there’s the real world. That’s where I think your argument is most valid. The defined path of success too often is to have a sheeple job at a big company where creativity is not encouraged and where leaders are those who successfully climb the ladder through political skill.

    On an individual level I think people too often have a tendency to categorize themselves and others around them. I am a bit of a introvert in many ways. Thus people close to me try to say I’m shy. But, I’m not. Likewise, I know a guy (dennis) who spends all day making deals and pushing his company forward. He likes to think of himself as a leader, but he isn’t. He leads because he’s chosen to do it and he thinks that gives him more value. But he’s not a natural leader. Naturally he’s more creative than he is a leader. But to him there’s no value in that so he denies it.

    People really do get hung up labels. If they let expectations drive them they could be shortcutting their real skills. We need to see people not as labels but as individuals. correct

  3. says

    I’m visiting on Suzicate’s bloggy award recommendation and I must say, I love your blog. I’m only 3 posts in, but am adding you to my daily reads immediately!. As for leadership, the corporate world will see a shift in perspective as this next generation moves into leadership roles. It will be more “leading from the middle,” and not from the top down as adults are used to now. My two girls are through college (well, one is graduating this spring), and I’m excited to see how they apply their experiences in making their own way now. Thanks for some great reads today. I’m sure you will see me often! :-)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Happy to have you, LisaF! And it will be interesting to see how our college kids maneuver the world as it is now, and will be in the next few years.

      Keith, you make great points about the corporate world versus the college experience. That said, with one now in college and the other a junior in high school, I also see how leadership awards (even in middle school) lead to other opportunities which are more plentiful than in the arts, for example. Likewise, in high school. So a “creative kid” has fewer opportunities for recognized honors, and also far fewer opportunities for summer programs and ultimately (I believe) for scholarships.

      So, these things tend to snowball, and do reflect society’s values.

  4. says

    You bring up a lot of great points. I agree, everyone can’t be a leader – or who would follow? And why do leaders make better college students or college grads? When we toured one Ivy school, our tour guide went on and on about his accolades. “I’m pre-med… I intern at the hospital… I volunteer at the children’s hospital… I … I… I…” Um, shouldn’t a good leader be focused on others? Not on themselves?

    Then again, I no longer subscribe to Ayn Rand’s egotist philosophy.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      April – a quick glance and a (reasonable) assumption on this data leads me to believe that it skews perception. As with most statistics, there’s always fine print and interpretation at work.

      I believe they are lumping into “the arts” graphic designers, art directors and others that support web-based business and other tasks. There’s nothing wrong with that – but if that is the case, it alters the reality considerably.

      Fine artists (or writers for that matter) rarely make a living at their work. They therefore take related jobs that allow them to use some of their creative skills in other environments. Furthermore, the realms of graphics/graphic design/industrial design are blended functions, but I’m guessing that what these numbers are really illustrating is the burgeoning technology sector, and the way we title certain roles.

  5. says

    Yes, this is it: “We have no rewarding of qualities of distinction, rather than titles of so-called accomplishment.”
    College applications for my kids are a long way off, but in a way, I see this question of how we recognize leaders already. In kindergarten, even. There are leaders already and I am guessing that they will be fast-tracked over the next years of elementary school. It’s difficult to sit back and watch all of this happening, as my son is not one of the leaders. He is one of the super-sensitive worriers. Already he thinks nobody likes him, and yet he has friends surrounding him. As a parent, I hope I don’t push (or spend too much time “convincing”) too hard but rather push just enough. Naive, I’m sure. Our children can’t all be leaders, but each has his own unique outlook, experience, even wisdom to share if we–and the greater society–will offer the opportunity.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Jen – I saw this 10 years ago with my kids as well. Those who are outgoing and communicative are immediately slotted into the fast track. Frequently, the most inventive and creative kids are also the “weird” kids or, at the very least, appear to be shy or quiet. They’re in their own worlds. At worst, educators and counselors say there is something wrong with them; at best, they’re scooted along with the rest of the pack, and not given the same extras as those who are deemed leaders.

      Frankly, we had an excellent public school elementary experience. Small class sizes, which allowed teachers more time to genuinely observe individual kids, and teachers who cared to give each what they needed. But I suspect that’s not the norm. Exactly why we, as parents, can’t let up on our schools, or hand over the responsibility of teaching our children solely to our educators. We know our kids best. We have to help create the unique opportunities they need, to become the many selves that will feel right for them.

  6. says

    Great questions here. Such a difficult topic, because our society is structured to celebrate “leaders” (in the traditional definition of the word) and it will take a long time to change that, I think.

    One thing I’ve noticed in the working world – for virtually any organization – is the push to promote people to manager. If you are good at what you do, you get promoted and get promoted until you are a manager. And at that point, your job takes you away from what you are good at and love, so you are instead spending all your time on managing people and bureaucracy. This is the only way to “get ahead,” to make more money in the typical org structure. But shouldn’t we be letting people stay focused on their practice – writing or sales or engineering, whatever it is – instead of pushing them to management?

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Excellent point, Eva. The “Peter Principle” – promoted to your level of incompetence. Or at the very least, the only way to get more money – moving up the ladder, even if it isn’t the work you love, or which suits you.

  7. says

    As usual, you’ve given me much to think about. It does seem that team players are much more appreciated in sports than in the business world. Every sports team, company, or college club needs it’s base as well as leader. Unfortunately, the inner working of almost everything is not seen for its importance. Sorry, for my lack of clarity… still feeling yucky and trying to find the words for what I’m thinking, but I get where you’re going. Also, have two sons where older is more of a leader and younger is a hard worker for the team/club!

  8. says

    So many great points made by previous commenters, but I wanted to add my two cents as a former teacher at a competitive New England prep school: as much as I would like to believe Keith’s suggestion that colleges reward kids whose accomplishments fall “outside of the box,” the trends suggest otherwise. There are kids who are off-beat and are rewarded for it, but it is often because they are stellar in their off-beatness (e.g. invent a solar cell for a car). There are certainly colleges – the very best, in my opinion – that look for unique individuals in order to create a diverse student body, but the norm is to admit the student who excels in the usual categories.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Kristen, thanks for joining this discussion. (I hope Steve does as well, given that he has a lot of expertise in this area.)

      My experience with my elder son (now a freshman in college), as well as with his closest friends, is in keeping with your observation. And perhaps it isn’t the fault of the ‘admissions’ process any more than it is any particular “fault” in the job application process or any other competitive selection.

      Life is filled with competition and comparisons; there are few slots and fewer still with scholarships. That’s true in academics as well as the business world, the arts, athletics, or politics for that matter. With so many applying to so few seats, I can only imagine that those making the decisions are inundated. They use the criteria that are the best predictors of “success” at their institutions. And that generally means choosing the best of the best according to criteria they are comfortable with.

  9. says

    This is a very thought-provoking post. And so true. I hate those stupid forms; no matter how great your kid is, there’s always a part of it you have to really stretch it and wind up feeliing inadequate.
    My son was an eagle scout, but thank goodness he was; there was no other way to measure his leadership skills, tho he was into theater and music. My middle child is a braniac but not a leader. She forced herself to run for class historian for 3 years so she could use that. My youngest is a leader. But they’re all so different. Until he was a senior my son never got one award at school; I never even realized it was going on until my daughters got to school. Why are only academics being rewarded, or amazing athletes. There are so many great kids out there getting little or no recognition. I don’t know the answers, but it’s great to provoke the discussion.

  10. says

    Thought-provoking post. I know many people who excelled at their jobs but were horrible managers. It took me a long time to realize that managing people would not be a good fit for me. I know that I am very capable, good team player, and good at my job. Yet every so often, I get upset with myself because I’m not seen as a leader, which is really the only way that our society equates with success.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Hello O and G! And doesn’t it seem counterproductive that we would not reward the fantastic team players, and somehow make them feel less important if they aren’t “managing?” (Of course, in a layoff, depending upon the reason for the layoff, it’s often the managers that go. I’ve got experience with that one. :) )

  11. says

    We are going through the same thinking process as Ben fills out Med school applications. It seems the focus is solely on test scores and extracurricular activities that people who would make great students (or doctors) become jaded and decide against furthering their education. It is highly frustrating. I often remark that I don’t know how I got into my school. My resume was not exceptional, my GPA great (not perfect) and my SAT scores a little above average. Beyond that? I think it was probably because I applied for the second semester (winter here, spring elsewhere) rather than the traditional Fall semester.

    I would not categorize myself as a leader. I would say I work well with other people. I know that is valued in many workplaces, it just depends on whether you want an entry-level job, with mediocre pay, or a professional job with okay pay.

    I guess I’m not really providing any real perspective. You could call this comment “word vomit” because I am just projecting words out. : )

  12. says

    I took a lot of leadership courses in graduate school and one of the best was called “Followership.” It touched on many of the issues you mentioned and it was a class I got a lot more out of because, well, I won’t always be the leader. In fact, most of the time I won’t the leader. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enact change, lead by example, and “manage up.”

    The professor, Barbara Kellerman, had a book on the subject too:

  13. says

    Well, and I think most of us, including those who work in college admissions, tend to think according to conventions. But I’m also imagining that there may be “quota” for those more eccentric — or those who challenge our ideas of what is “normal” excellence. I know my son is one of them — someone who will always walk a little apart from the herd. Its ok for our kids to be like that as long as they have confidence in themselves.

    Of course, the folks in the herd may feel like outsiders, too! 😉

  14. says

    Another excellent post and the discussion is fantastic! I think the terms leader and follower are too black and white for the gray world we’re in. I see education and jobs as areas where to a degree, we willingly allow ourselves to be molded at the risk of losing our quirkiness and uniqueness, two things we’re sadly not taught to value in our success obsessed society. I think it’s important to remember that education and work are only two areas of our existence where we define success, and even more important to remember that there are many other avenues through which we can derive success (by our definition whatever it may be) and fulfillment.

  15. says

    This has been my first opportunity to stop by and I’m so glad I finally took the opportunity. I’ve read your thoughtful comments on other blogs and am often struck by your perspective. This post is no different. It’s a huge issue and yet you tackle it with finesse.

    To me the mark of a leader is a person who is comfortable in their own skin, who shows confidence under pressure, who can react with grace. Those skills can be found in the most non-assuming individuals and leave such a lasting impact. You don’t necessarily find them in people who would normally characterize as leaders. It’s a distinction that sets apart the real leaders I think. I think these are qualities that can be found in people like your son. I get the sense that he leads by example. That is a strong quality that will serve him well in the real world.

  16. says

    I HATE working all day and showing up so late to the party!!!! (However, I do like the income!)
    I love the topic of leadership. I leisure read textbooks on the topic! (I know, dullsville.) There are, generally speaking two types of leaders. The formal leader and the informal leader. Now, without going into a great big graduate thesis about it, take a wild guess which role garners more “power” to create and sustain change. The boss, top down, yadda yadda is the formal leader and can make things happen by authority, but I’ve worked for fortune 500 companies, with non-profits, and now in education/politics (yes, education is a political game now) and I’ve found that even though the formal leadership has a certain kind of power, the informal leaders, those who lead from among the ranks, can build or destroy kingdoms very effectively.
    I might suggest that your son consider how he can parlay his experiences, his activities and his contributions into some form of leadership. If he can convey that he demonstrated leadership skills and abilities by example or influence in spite of not filling a particular position, he might be in a particularly good place to promote himself sans the “leadership” jobs. For a good read on the topic of Leadership I’d recommend Kouzes & Pozner’s book, Leadership Challenge”. I know, I know. I’m the only geeky dork that would read or comment like this.
    As far as square pegs and round holes or whatever, I’m with you. We tend to want cookie cutter, and there are good reasons for this when it comes to interviewing job candidates and college applicants, but there are times when the exceptional ones don’t exactly fit the mold either.
    LOVED this (and all) your posts! Finally, I have some time to actually read and comment!!! Yay!!!
    Okay, I’ll shut up now.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You are SO far from being a geeky dork, Wild Mind. And you always make me smile. (Don’t every shut up.)

  17. says

    As someone with experience in college admission recruiting, I can say it very much depends on the college. Some places go out of their way to look for, recruit, attract, and retain students who lead in different, less conventional ways or who excel in areas other than traditional leadership. Those colleges are the ones worth your son’s time. They will appreciate and cultivate his gifts.

    Also, the admission essay is really the way for students who don’t fit the “mold” to wow the admission committee. My admission colleagues are always saying how rare (and welcome) the essay is that says something, not the same old thing. (I must also add, shame on the college that relies primarily on a fill-in-the-blank or fill-in-the-bubble form to assess its potential students.)

  18. says

    Your summary in the above belief statements are perfectly aligned with a classic liberal arts education. Maybe your son is looking at the wrong kind of college. He sounds like the perfect candidate for a liberal arts education such as my second daughter. You hit it on the nail: exposure to diversity, teamwork skills, breadth of knowledge, critical thinking skills, interpersonal communication skills, creative thinking skills, etc… Leadership is only one trait and today, it has tremendous contextual flexibility in definition.

    Who are the people surviving this economic turmoil? The people with a liberal arts education. Why? Because they have transferable skills. Because they have the ability to adapt. Because they have the strength to endure change. They think outside the box.

    Your son will be fine. He will be more than fine. In today’s world, more than ever, he will succeed.

    Find the right fit for him – a college deeply rooted in liberal arts.

  19. says

    This is so interesting. And so tricky. How to fashion a system that celebrates the idiosyncratic strengths of its citizenry? I don’t know. I think that one of the reasons conventional “leadership” prowess is celebrated and rewarded is because it is in some sense more objectively identifiable? As always, you pose an abundance of thoughtful and complex questions here. As always, you have triggered a rich debate.

    Thank you.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Steve, Stacia, Elizabeth, and others touch on both the opportunities and the dilemma of the “outside the traditional box” kid. We don’t want to force our “star-shaped” pegs into a round hole, yet we recognize that in the real world, as adults, certain credentials are necessary to survive, much less thrive. Whatever one’s idea of success is, we want to arm our kids with as many tools as possible. A good education is one of those tools. And also an amazing experience, or it can be. And yes, Steve, my younger son is looking largely at liberal arts colleges.

      But we all know how complex the world is, not to mention how expensive any kind of education is now. Competition for what used to be “so-so” schools is now fierce, much less top-tier schools. And likewise, scholarships. Aidan – you and others (myself included) know the advantages of a Blue Chip education. Not only is the experience itself incredible (depending upon the school), but the interaction with other students and faculty can be extraordinary. To say that these schools open doors and provide a network for life is a something I can attest to, 30 years later. They don’t guarantee anything (also something I can attest to), but the richness of the experience and the ongoing friends and connections are powerfully influential.

      Isn’t this what we want for our children? An environment that “fits,” and one which will offer up opportunities for learning, for engagement, and a network that will serve them well – not only professionally but personally? Yes, conventional leadership skills are more easily identified, but we can also identify the writing talent, the musical prodigy, the born artist, and we don’t have “valued” places for them in society. Not in our society.

  20. says

    I love this post and the questions it raises. My three kids are all so different. DS (10), while very responsible and competent, is also a lone wolf who does his own thing, and doesn’t really like being in a traditional leadership role (ie: in charge of people). DD (9) is more of a traditional leader – fostering teamwork and motivating others comes naturally to her – and my youngest DD (7) is the creative thinker, the risk taker, not so much a leader as a trailblazer. I like to think if I raise them all to be confident in their abilities – regardless of what their respective strengths are – they will each find their way (she hopes!)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Hi Denise. I agree that if you raise your children to be confident, that makes a huge difference. But I would also suggest that the educational system can only do so much, and that remaining a very engaged parent (especially for the creative kids) is a must. Traditional schools don’t have the means (in terms of skills, programs, or finances) to offer these kids the kind of challenge they need. It falls to us as parents to support and encourage those special strengths, where schools simply aren’t in a position to do so. It sounds like you’ll be plenty busy with your three – and how wonderful to have such different kids to parent! (And despite the work involved, parenting is the best job there is.)

  21. says

    It will be 17 years before I sit down with my son to determine which of his strenghts should be most prominently featured on a college application. Nevertheless, you’ve got me thinking about how his path during those 17 years will shape that application experience. I suppose many parents might want to escort their child down a conventional path that suits the application process. And if that is the path of his choosing, so be it. But if his path is more artistic, team-player, or counselor, I will bear this post in mind, reminding him of the value such people bring to the rest of us, whether or not they fit the rubric of a standardized yardstick.

  22. says

    Really fascinating discussion, BLW.

    It’s a funny, kind of old-fashioned, idea that a seventeen-year-old should have “leadership” skills which will somehow translate into success in college. I think, from watching my kids at school and from living in the world, that it’s probably more important in the long run, to learn how to work together collaboratively, to listen respectfully to others’ ideas, and to know when to accede gracefully.

  23. says

    A thousand years ago I wrote an opinion piece that said that grades were useless. There were no real uniform standards by which to measure students.

    I used the example of my lower division Western Civ class. I had to read 4 books, write two papers and took a mid term and final.

    My friend had one open book midterm exam and a final. We both received ‘A’s yet I worked far harder for mine than he for his. My problem was that they were weighted the same.

    From that point on I saw little to no use for grades. i see little use for pedigrees from universities other than some provide you with better networking opportunities than others.

    Let me qualify that, there are certain advantages that can be had when you first enter the working world. Eventually those advantages disappear and it becomes a question of experience.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Jack, I agree on several points. Grades are frequently as biased as you can get. They don’t measure what you’ve learned or what you know. As for schools, yes – about 10 years, 15 years out – they become semi-irrelevent. The experience is what matters. In fact, my schools now work against me in looking for jobs, where I am. I’m “assumed” to be overqualified and too expensive. Ridiculous. But the networks are forever, as is the experience itself.

  24. says

    Although way late to this party (owing to work), my two cents is on focusing on helping people feel confident in their individuality so they will be less keen to follow. I dream of a more horizontal culture as opposed to the hierarchical one that we have. Between my own journey from the lower to the upper rungs of of various dysfunctional institutions (affirmed by my experience with clients across the range from fringe-dwelling artists to movers and shakers at the power centers) my observation is that no one really knows what they are doing. That’s fine, we just need to know that everyone is a bit in the dark (it’s not that people don’t have competencies, it’s just that at the “leadership” level we end up talking about markets, countries and the zeitgeist).

    Certainly in Hollywood many an executive keeps their job by learning to say neither no nor yes, surviving by avoiding any blame or responsibility (and then zooming in for credit when success happens).

    The true essence of leadership is service, but people will sooner follow and empower brash con-artists than quiet helpers. Sad for kids going to college, sad for our world. As ineffective leadership fails, from Wall Street to Washington, the old paradigm may kill itself off by ultimately proving irrelevant, a lot of shiny hot air.

    In a world of thundering, yet teetering, dinosaurs (from publishing, to movies, to music, to finance) it will pay to be a mammal, even a mouse, over time. After all, we’re here talking to each other (and not watching Network TV as we might have when we were kids)—could this be a maverick sort of leadership? A burgeoning movement of individuality in the service of a better collectivity?

  25. says

    “Leadership” – translate “getting ahead of the other guy” – translate “fame, money, power” (the standard American definition of success) – translate “fame, money, power” for any institution associated with such leadership. Leadership and honor are secondary virtues, because they are no virtue when done in the thrall of money and power and violence. Think Nazi Germany; or Chile, El Salvador and Vietnam for the United States.

    A conspicuous and limited challenge is seen as a fine and welcome thing in academe — always good for showing how liberal and thoughtful and moral the institution is. My institution excels in teaching both leadership and “moral capitalism.” Moral accumulation of great wealth. Academic institutions like to imagine that this is possible even while many people in this world are starving and many others (often from impoverished backgrounds) are dying in wars to protect this great wealth. (You can see why my institution was happy to see me retire, and this is yet another reason why Universities want to restrict tenure and require faculty to stick to their formal expertise and focus on publication and research grants.) I don’t claim to know the answers, but I do claim to know the problem. And recognizing the problem and making it public are the essential first steps, if there is to be any hope for future generations.

    Someone commented “… informal leaders, those who lead from among the ranks, can build or destroy kingdoms very effectively.” I agree that power ultimately resides in the people, which is why exemplar leaders for change often have been killed, imprisoned or in other ways repressed and marginalized by the power structure. Jesus is a good example of such leadership and of what can happen as a result. Suggesting that current church leaders are hypocritical feels hardly different today from when Jesus accused the Pharisees and Sadducees two thousand years ago.

    Someone also commented re self-centered leadership, that it “…very much depends on the college.” To an extent, quite true. However, to varying extents, we are all part of the system and blind to our self-deception.

    There is great danger as we develop a mono-culture in our society, comparable to the developing mono-culture in our food supply. This is particularly a danger for a culture based on American exceptionalism and that invests power in a few individuals. Those who control most of the citizenry simultaneously trumpet (via media domination) our freedom and individualism. Reader, know that I am extremely grateful for what freedoms still exist in this country, such that I and others of my acquaintance are alive to speak the truth as we see it. This right has been protected much more by citizens willing to speak their versions of truth (despite the consequences) than by soldiers in war, who are a “fighting machine” but not a political machine. I am grateful that in speaking our truth, we are oppressed not by death or imprisonment (for the most part), but instead (only somewhat better) by the overwhelming propaganda machine of those in power, including what is often taught and assumed in our Universities.


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