All across the country, high school seniors are working feverishly to complete college and scholarship applications. Prospective students share their high school academic records, write essays, and list their leadership experiences.
If you have an introverted son or daughter, this leadership component can prove problematic. Your high school senior may have earned excellent grades, but did not join clubs or organizations, much less serving in a leadership role.
Susan Cain, author of the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, provides compelling research that introverts can make excellent leaders. She dispels the myth that only those with gregarious, charismatic personalities can lead with authority and conviction.
But my question is, why do we all have to be leaders?
Cain points out that our culture has a bias against introverts. I believe we similarly have a leadership-centric bias. We see leadership as being all-important to success, which I don’t believe is true.
Being a leader is not the only way to contribute to our world. What about kids who can design new software or build a robot? Or fix computers or refurbish iPads? What about kids who can write novels? Teach themselves to play musical instruments and write songs that entertain and move us? What about kids who spend countless hours reading every book they can get their hands on?
Maybe these kids don’t join clubs, but they still have much to offer. Rather than asking only about leadership, what if we asked: Do you care deeply about something?
I also think about kids who are sensitive and kind. For example, those who volunteer at an animal shelter or help with an environmental cause. Or, with all of the bullying and hating taking place on high school and college campuses, why don’t we offer scholarship to kids who are nice? I remember one high school teacher telling me about a very bright and quiet student who always helped those who were struggling in class. If I were a college admissions officer, I would want these students at my school.
The colleges that disproportionately focus on leadership are missing the point. The goal of education should be to develop individuals who can think, reason, and serve, regardless of the exact role those individuals will play in society.
In researching this topic, I found some support from the Harvard Business School Center for Public Leadership. Barbara Kellerman writes in her book, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders:
(There is) “compelling and ultimately conclusive evidence that to focus on superiors at the expense of their subordinates is to distort the dynamic between them…to fixate on leaders at the expense of followers is misguided…The latter are every bit as important as the former.”
I think we’d do well to remember the words of Helen Keller: “The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”