Leadership Roles: If Everyone is Leading, Who is Following?

I’ve spent the better part of the last few months helping a teenager fill out an assortment of personal applications. From college and scholarship applications, to job, club, honor society, and collegiate organizations, he’s diligently had to make a personal pitch in the hopes of earning whatever position or accolade they are offering.

When the the need for leadership roles for teens dominate their lives?

As I review his applications, I wonder how on earth, in two pages, can my 17 year son can convey what type of person he is to a group of strangers and why are we obsessed with “leadership roles?”

We unapologetically abide by the rules of the “achievement game,” and begrudgingly participate in the puffing up of our teenagers into statistical accomplishment bots. Yes, these kids, who just a few years ago were devouring episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are now expected to have transformed into penultimately perfect people. (I can’t recall, but which turtle is it that drops their Legos one day and becomes commander-in-chief the next?)

It seems the second they leave the middle school cocoon, the frenzied race for leadership roles begins. Now, it’s not enough to just be in the group, you must be the captain, the mentor, the editor, the founder, the manager, and the director!

In every single personal application I’ve seen, there is that one question: “Please describe what leadership roles you have held, and what your duties were, and how long you were the leader, and how many people did you lead, and how many spin-off groups did you also start and lead…”

[More about why college admission is harder than you expected here.]

After awhile all I saw was, “You DID lead, didn’t you? How did you lead? Did you leading-ly lead the other leaders into leadership led leaders? Has leading taught you to be a better leader? Is leading your major? What will you lead in the future?” because that is how silly it all started sounding.

Here is my question to the people who are reading these applications….

“If everyone is leading, who the hell is following?”

How refreshing would it be to see a question on an application that looked like this…

“Explain a time when you were just a regular member of a team, a group, or a club, and you did work behind the scenes that nobody noticed. You weren’t special, or boastful, or overly enthusiastic about everything, but you were just an on time, dependable, average, and happily participating member. You kept the group quietly afloat,and nobody noticed. How?”

Sadly, I think our teens (and parents, quite frankly) would be in shock at a question like that, and most likely be both unable to process it, or even attempt to answer it, because our children have been programmed to think and act in an entirely different way.

Imagine how deep they would have to dig to explain how being ordinary and average (gasp!) can actually be a good thing. It can mean they’ve found contentedness, it can mean they’ve learned leaning in often means leaning away from deeper personal relationships and reflections. It can mean that they’ve learned that being busy, overbooked, totally stressed out, striving for unattainable achievement, and having the pressure of leadership constantly hanging over their heads leaves them lonely, unsatisfied, and yearning for something better. And they’re right, and it may speak to the high levels of depression college students are now suffering from. Unfortunately, people usually come to the realization that overachievement can be fleeting and unfulfilling somewhere around mid-life (not during adolescence) and often end up regretting all the time they wasted trying to be extraordinary, when being ordinary was enough.

[More about parenting a teen through the difficult junior year of high school here.]

There is something to be said for the unassuming regular average guy, the “C” student, the common member, the humble participant, and all the lesser known students floating around the middle of their higher ranked and more presidential classmates. They have just as important a role to play in race of life as the leader will.

Want to see the really amazing leaders? They are not the elite runners actually leading the race. Rather, they are the runners in the back of the pack, because of what kind of race they are running.

You see, while they’re back there with the average folks, they are inspiring, they are encouraging, and in their own way they are leading the people who the real leaders cannot reach. The middle of the pack runners will never keep pace with the elites, they will never have the confidence to even attempt to do so, but with a nudge from a fellow average follower, they will be inspired.

These followers, these middle of the pack runners, are much like teenagers who will never hold traditional leadership roles. Instead, with a little shove, a sly look, or a pat on the back, they can tell a peer to make a better choice, do more, give back, contribute extra, and be a more stand up person. Also, without holding the voted in position of leading role model, they have the opportunity to hold an even more significant role, the one of follower, the one that makes the group as a whole, well, actually work as a whole. They are the quiet leader, the one who during the race passes by a walker and says,

“You’re doing it. You can do it. Now start running with me.”

Nobody elects them to say that, there are no accolades that come with saying that, there is no title or badge that comes with it, there is only that unpretentious, warm and fuzzy feeling that in a very little way, you made a very big difference to someone. And you did so without standing up in front of everyone and behind a podium, but standing next to and with someone.

Our world needs leaders, our communities need leaders, and our colleges and high schools need leaders, but they also need legions of followers, and those followers need not be ashamed to serve in that role. We need essay prompts and applications for our youth that do not discount or discourage their roles as just participants, but highlight it. Instead of questions like, “How great are you when people are watching?” can we ask them “How great are you when people are NOT watching?” Now that is a question I’d like our teens to truthfully and honestly answer, and it would be a much better reflection of their character and potential than ‘How many leadership roles have you held?”


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Melissa FentonMelissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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