Emerging Trends in Student Leadership

Elizabeth A. Duffy, Head Master, The Lawrenceville School Lawrenceville, NJ

January 2007

Most independent schools include leadership as a central part of their mission statements, and we all provide many opportunities for students to assume leadership roles on campus, through student government, athletics, community service, the arts, and other activities. Increasingly, we are also doing more to prepare students for leadership roles, to involve students in authentic leadership opportunities, and to ensure that student leadership pervades all aspects of campus life.  How do we structure leadership opportunities to help students develop the skills they’ll need as adults to be leaders in the 21st century? – that is the question with which many independent schools are currently grappling.  

Leadership Training for the Conceptual Age

We would never ask a student to play in a concert without rehearsing, a team to compete without practicing, or a class to take a summative test without teaching students the material first and then giving them time to study.  Nevertheless, too often students are elected or appointed to leadership positions and then provided only informal mentorship.   

While there is certainly value in learning by doing, there is even more learning in “the doing” when students are adequately prepared.  Being a leader, particularly among peers, which is the situation in which most students find themselves, isn’t easy.  Although some students are natural leaders, all students have the potential to lead, and all student leaders, even the naturals, benefit from learning more about themselves and their own leadership styles, as well as basic leadership skills, such as goal setting, team building, group facilitation, decision making, and conflict resolution.

Since the ultimate purpose of education is to prepare students for life, not just for school activities, it’s also essential that leadership training – and the leadership opportunities we provide on our campuses – reflect and emphasize the skills students will need to be leaders in the 21st century. In his recent book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Books, 2005), Daniel Pink argues that we are entering a new age.  If the 18th century was the Agricultural Age, the 19th century was the Industrial Age, and the 20th century was the Information Age, the 21st century, Pink predicts, will be the Conceptual Age, in which creators and empathizers rather than farmers or factory workers or knowledge workers will play the lead roles.  Thus, schools must help students develop their relational and creative abilities as well as their analytical and reasoning skills.

Pink cites three forces driving us into this new age:  abundance, Asia and automation:

Abundance has satisfied, and even oversatisfied, the material needs of millions – boosting the significance of beauty and emotion and accelerating individuals’ search for meaning.  Asia is now performing large amounts of routine, white-collar, R-Directed [analytical] work at significantly lower costs, thereby forcing knowledge workers in the advanced world to master abilities that can’t be shipped overseas.  And automation has begun to affect this generation’s white-collar workers in much the same way it did last generation’s blue-collar workers, requiring L-Directed [creative and empathetic] professionals to develop attitudes that computers can’t do better, faster, or cheaper.  (pp 46-47)

Writing from different disciplines and perspectives, other leading thinkers, such as philosopher Kwame Appiah in Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006) and economist Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), draw strikingly similar conclusions: the students of today will live and lead in a globally-connected world and therefore require different skills than in the past, including empathy and creative imagination.

What does this change mean for schools committed to preparing students to be lifelong leaders?  It means that schools must pay attention not just to having a representative set of clubs on campus, but also to establishing umbrella structures to cultivate productive interactions among related groups:  a cross cultural club to sponsor joint activities with multiple affinity groups, a multi-faith council to promote discussion among the various religions represented on campus, a captain’s committee to resolve issues of shared concern among athletic teams.  While it continues to make sense to have both Young Democrat and Young Republican organizations, it is increasingly important to foster dialogue between them.  Imagine if, in addition to the traditional debate on the eve of an election, students from both clubs were challenged to develop together a collaborative solution to a contemporary issue.  Such interactions and challenges require precisely the leadership skills – active listening, reflective judgment, compromise – that will prepare students best for the complex, global problems they will face.  As Patricia King and Karen Kitchener explain in Developing Reflective Judgment (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), the issues that will confront this generation, such as global warming, terrorism, pandemics and other large-scale natural disasters, are “ill-structured problems” without easy definitions or solutions, thus future leaders will need to be comfortable making decisions and acting even in the face of uncertainty and conflicting perspectives and recommendations.

Academic and Authentic Leadership Opportunities

In schools that take fostering lifelong leadership seriously, student leadership is evident not just through extracurricular activities, but also in the classroom. When asked to list their leadership activities on college applications, most students provide lists of extracurricular activities and positions.  Although many students are also able to list academic awards and honors, few have genuine academic leadership experiences beyond perhaps peer tutoring or captaining academic teams, such as Science Olympiad or Robotics.  That’s because academics are still primarily solitary activities in which students are assessed on their individual performances and achievements, and grading is used to sort students rather than to promote teamwork or collaboration.

For the past couple of years, I have co-taught an advanced bioethics elective.  At the culmination of each unit of the class, the students undertake a simulation, such as deciding a euthanasia case as a hospital review board, proposing amendments to the federal stem cell research law as members of a Congressional subcommittee, or drafting resolutions about genetic engineering as country delegates to the United Nations.  During those simulations, my co-teacher and I remove ourselves from the discussion and watch as our students grapple together first to understand the issue and each others’ varied perspectives and then to come to an acceptable resolution. Faced with a group decision that matters and equipped with scientific knowledge, ethical frameworks and basic group decision-making skills, students are capable of amazingly sophisticated and insightful thinking. 

Requiring students to undertake such academic leadership also deepens student learning.  There were times, during those bioethics simulations, for example, when my colleague and I literally watched the students make a wrong assumption based on faulty information, back themselves into an illogical corner, and then review and retrace their reasoning until they found and could correct their initial error.  Now, that’s learning! 

How do we, each day in our classrooms, teach students not only to answer questions well but also to ask good questions?  How do we educate students to facilitate class discussions, not just contribute to them?  How do we teach students to listen attentively not only to us teachers but also to each other? How do we cultivate empathy and creativity? For those are the skills that will be required of leaders in the 21st century.

Perhaps even more powerful than classroom simulations are opportunities for students to be involved in actual decisions that have real consequences, such as developing a teacher feedback survey or altering disciplinary policies.  Faculty and administrators bring considerable knowledge, expertise, experience, and perspective to their work and therefore properly make most school decisions.  But, students have much to contribute to campus deliberations too, including firsthand experience of the teaching and learning that happens on campus and often the type of idealism and hopeful optimism that comes with youth and that often leads to refreshingly novel solutions or innovations.

Students should also be encouraged to become engaged beyond the gates of our schools.  Community involvement can provide authentic leadership and powerful learning opportunities for our students by enabling them to apply what they’ve learned in class to real world settings or teach what they’ve learned.  In many of our schools, for example, students in environmental science classes are helping towns and municipalities analyze environmental issues and envision more sustainable solutions.  Other students are sharing their artistic and athletic talents, by helping kids from the community find and develop their passions. Such community involvement reinforces the ultimate purposes of leadership – to serve others and to make the world a better place.  As leadership expert John Maxwell explains, “Success is when you add value to yourself.  Significance is when you add value to others.”  Responsible leadership is about significance, not success. 

Modeling Leadership

Finally, and perhaps most important, we faculty and our schools have begun to recognize that if we expect our students to become leaders, we need to be leaders.  It’s not enough for us to exhort students to be leaders, we need to model such behavior; it’s not enough, for example, to teach students about global warming, we as institutions need to be good environmental stewards if we want students, now and when they become adults, to take seriously their responsibility to the planet.  In their book, The Students are Watching (Beacon Press,1999) educators Ted and Nancy Sizer underscore the importance of faculty and schools living up to their stated values: "To find the core of a school, don't look at its rulebook or even its mission statement.  Look at the way people in it spend their time – how they relate to each other, how they tangle with ideas.  Look for the contradiction between words and practice, with the fewer the better . . . Judge the school not on what it says but on how it keeps." (p. 18)

While part of how we as schools “keep” involves the institutional policies we make, much of how we keep and how we lead is reflected by the day-to-day decisions we make and how we respond to the many teachable moments that occur in our schools.  Some of the most enduring learning that happens in our schools occurs not as part of formal lesson plans but in unplanned rifts in response to student questions and inquiries, in spontaneous conversations about timely topics and issues of concern, and in non-classroom settings – on the playing fields and stages, in the dining halls, and for us residential schools, in our houses and dorms.  

How teachers approach their work and interact with each other also sends powerful messages to students about leading and learning.  Are teachers passionate about what they teach?  Do they continually broaden and deepen their disciplinary understanding and improve their teaching skills?  Does the composition of the faculty foster healthy discussions and debates? How, given the relatively solitary profession of teaching, can we model teamwork and collaboration? To ensure such modeling, many schools have begun to develop so-called “professional learning communities,” to promote ongoing learning, distributed leadership and collegial work among the faculty.  While such arrangements promote faculty growth and satisfaction, they, just as importantly, model well for students the type of skills they will need to be leaders in whatever profession they choose.

Time to Lead and Permission to Fail

The traditional structure of our schools is just one factor that can get in the way of schools, even excellent schools with considerable independence and resources, modeling collaborative leadership and therefore fostering 21st century leadership skills in our students. Two other critical barriers are time and fear of failure. 

It is often easier and more efficient for faculty and administrators to do something themselves than to involve students.  Similarly, it takes time to provide leadership training and time to collaborate or work in teams, and time is at a premium in most schools and in most peoples’ lives today.  But the savings in time that comes from not involving students, not preparing them for leadership roles, or not promoting collaboration, is a false savings, because the ultimate measure of a school’s success is what students learn that endures beyond school and that students can transfer to their lived lives.  Again, we’re not educating students to be efficient at completing assignments, savvy at taking tests, or expert at building resumes, we’re educating them to be responsible citizens and thoughtful leaders – that takes time.   The challenge for schools is to make time for such important work not by loading more into students’ and teachers’ already full backpacks, but by prioritizing what we do by what will contribute most to students’ enduring learning and their abilities to be effective leaders in the future.

An even higher barrier to students’ learning how to lead is the perceived – and real – cost of failure, especially given today’s high stakes game of college admissions.  The Common Application, which is now accepted at most colleges and universities across the country, requires students to write a personal essay.  The five suggested topics understandably focus mostly on accomplishments, positive influences and successes. But, imagine if students were also required to reflect on a failure, a regret, a failing, or an unsuccessful risk.  Colleges would be saying that it’s OK, and even expected, to be imperfect, and that part of becoming a leader is learning from your mistakes and persisting despite them.   

In a 2001 article in Academe entitled “Teaching for Engagement” (Academe, July/August 2001), Paul Rogat Loeb, a scholar associated with the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle, describes the debilitating effect of what he calls the “perfect standard” on student involvement in public life. “Students,” Loeb writes, “decide before they take a public stand on an issue, they need to know every fact, figure and statistic, and be eloquent enough to debate Henry Kissinger on Nightline…Students caught in this mindset feel that before they act, they need perfect confidence about their passion for the issue, perfect motives for taking it on, and the certainty that it’s the best cause imaginable….students also apply this perfect standard to the personal lives of those who take public stands.”

Loeb goes on to suggest an alternative standard:  “[Students] need to learn that they needn’t be saints or impossibly knowledgeable experts to make a difference.  If they want to succeed, they may stumble and fall occasionally.  And when they do act, they may gain a powerful voice.  To learn these lessons, they need examples of people who take action despite their doubts and uncertainties, and keep on despite apparent failures.”

Remarkable educators at independent schools across the country and around the world provide such examples to students every day.  In classrooms, on playing fields and stages, and in their many other interactions with students, they take the risk of engaging students in their own learning and education, even if that requires throwing out a lesson plan to take advantage of a teachable moment, letting students organize a less-than-perfect event rather than planning it for them, inviting students to participate in decisions that have real consequences, or encouraging students to move out of their comfort zones and risk failure.  In the process, those educators help to ensure that we live up to our mission to inspire and educate students to be responsible leaders.  While our efforts may not always succeed perfectly, that’s to be expected and to be embraced, as long as we continually strive to do better for and by our students.


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