Last week, my friend sent me a New York Times article about the value high school students place on leadership. Because of the perceived focus on traditional leadership in college admissions, students prioritize leadership in the vein of “political or business power” — defining leaders based on their authority and dominance. As students conform to the types of traditional corporate leadership that colleges seem to favor, we forget about other ways to be a leader, such as making advances in a specific field or being tremendously talented at a certain skill.
I believe that as Penn students, many of us can identify with this skewed notion of leadership. In high school, I tried to collect as many leadership positions as I could. Being on the board of this or that club was never enough; it was frequently about the next step. What was the next position I could add to my list of “accomplishments” so that I could get into a good college?
For many of us at Penn, this sort of thinking did not stop in high school. Now, it’s about what we can add to our resumes to get jobs or get into graduate school. We are just as driven for the next thing, regardless of what it is, as we were for college admission. Penn students still prioritize leadership in this political- and business-like definition that has been impressed upon many of us throughout our lives.
This celebration of and interest in people who “rise above the crowd” is truly engrained in our society and at Penn. We look up to leaders on campus who have taken charge to make a difference for their issues and their communities. These people without a doubt deserve to be recognized for the contributions that they make to the Penn campus and beyond. Yet there is another group of incredibly qualified and capable leaders who don’t hold the titles that are visible across campus.
So why can’t we reframe this leadership conversation?
I think what is relevant to Penn is what we consider to constitute a leader. Campus leaders are not just the people who hold positions in major student groups and are vocal across the school. Oftentimes, we focus more on this seemingly corporate model of leadership at Penn.
It is important to applaud the leaders who aren’t in the spotlight. The quiet leaders who are extremely involved on campus, maybe just in less visible roles, contribute just as much to our campus as anyone.
When we think about leadership at Penn, it’s easy to forget those who are involved in other capacities. Maybe it’s the people pursuing cutting-edge research. Or the musicians and artists that are really some of the most talented and hardworking in the world. Regardless, we should be doing more as a community to highlight these other forms of leadership that don’t subscribe to the traditional model that has been built.
In framing the leadership conversation, we should think about a call to service, rather than to status. In the competitive, high-pressure environment that we are in, it’s important for us to be reflective about our passions and why we choose to pursue the things we do. I believe that this is something that already exists at Penn, but it is crucial to really emphasize being reflective about what forms of leadership we seek.
For some people, that leadership will take the form of being at the forefront of the most visible organizations at Penn. But for others, it’s more nuanced and focused. And both of these things are perfectly valid ways to develop yourself as a leader and to have an impact on the university.
There are so many different paths to take at Penn that you don’t have to follow this corporate model of climbing the leadership ladder of your chosen organization to be successful.
I admit it can be difficult to flip this narrative. However, we can start by including people who embody alternate forms of leadership in the spotlight. As a community, we can do more to appreciate the people who do really amazing things outside of the prototypical model of leadership at Penn.
While this sort of reformation of the campus conversations on leadership in many ways has to start from an admissions perspective, we can still as a community emphasize a focus on passion rather than on status. Penn is an incredibly diverse place. Let’s expand our support of student leaders to encompass people who don’t meet the corporate leadership model that we have been raised to follow.
SHAWN SROLOVITZ is an Engineering junior from Manalapan, N.J., studying bioengineering. His email address is email@example.com. “Srol With It” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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