Colleges are obsessed with leadership

by Mr. Sheehy

It’s worth investigating the assumption that to be a “good leader” and to be a “desirable student” are the same thing. In valorizing “leadership” as a quality, we risk overlooking other—less obvious—qualities, something Harvard concedes could use more discussion. “We do need good followers, and I think that aspect of leadership is something that we should talk about more,” she says. “What good is any leader if they alienate those around them or don’t empower them to lead themselves? And does the focus on leadership imply that a student who embraces the life of the mind and a specific intellectual interest to the fullest isn’t leading in some equally compelling way?” Certainly, it’s worth asking if assumptions about “leadership,” culturally-specific and quintessentially American as they are, penalize candidates from different cultural backgrounds, where leadership—particularly among adolescents—might take different forms, or be discouraged altogether.

Tara Isabella Burton asks why American colleges are obsessed with leadership. It’s a good question. If they’re looking for a broader definition of leadership, perhaps we need to use different terminology. If a leader is one who isn’t swayed by the wind like a tossing wave, that is good, but that’s not really a leader–that’s a person firm in their convictions.

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