Most students have probably played a game of “follow the leader” at some point during their lives. The rules are pretty simple: there’s one leader who performs different actions, and everyone else in the group follows along. If the leader hops on one foot, so does everyone else; if you mess up, you’re out. But what would happen if everyone in the group wanted to be the leader?
That question is particularly relevant in the context of resumé-building in college, in which leadership experience is at the core. In most discussions I have had about future-planning, I have been told, “You don’t need to get involved in every organization on campus. Just get involved in a few, and try to find a leadership position in one or two of them.”
The people giving this advice mean well, and it has the potential to serve students well. One could take it as, “Don’t spread yourself too thin, and try to get involved in things you really care about.” To my detriment, though, all I hear is, “Find an organization and become the president or you’re a failure who won’t get a job.”
This has led to a semi-permanent state of panic and chaos in my brain. I am constantly worrying that the choices I have made in college are setting me up for failure. Thoughts like, “I should be an officer in this club,” “I need to volunteer more,” “Why don’t I have an internship?” and “What other RSOs could I join?” run through my mind on an endless loop, adding excess stress to my daily life. Simply put, I always feel like everything I’m doing still isn’t enough. If I’m not in charge, then what’s the point?
In certain contexts, encouraging leadership makes sense. A student who cares deeply about chess becoming chess club president is a logical progression, but the push to show leadership skills in the interest of impressing employers has warped the concept of leadership in many students’ minds. A lot of college kids today look for a resumé boost before they explore their passions – and they feel unfulfilled in the process. I have fallen into this trap many times.
There is also a key logistical factor that universities and employers tend to overlook: most people in the workforce are not bosses. It is arguably more important to learn the skills of being led than of leading. Conditioning an entire generation of students to believe that leadership experience will be essential to their careers creates a sense of entitlement and will lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction upon entering the workforce. Why not emphasize things like community and cooperation? Why not teach students how to navigate relationships with superiors and build camaraderie with peers?
A lot of my stress about my resumé is a personal problem. I’m a naturally high-strung person, and I have always worried about the future. However, there seem to be some deeply rooted — and deeply flawed — institutional ideas about leadership that are causing issues for more than just an anxious few. Universities, employers and students alike need a reality check. In the real-life, big-kid game of “follow the leader,” there just isn’t space for everyone to be at the front of the room. In fact, we’d probably be better off playing a different game altogether – one we can play as a team.