Leadership is “Follow me”

When I was a sophomore in high school, Sizzler began a promotion called “Steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp,” which was exactly what it sounds like—along with your steak, servers would continue to bring you as many deep-fried, breaded shrimp as you dared to eat.

An enterprising student at my school saw that as a perfect opportunity for a class fundraiser and organized a “Junior Class Shrimp-A-Thon.” Instead of selling candy bars, washing cars, or recycling any of the other same-as-every-other-year fundraising drives, participating juniors each solicited sponsors based on how many of those shrimp they could hopefully gulp down.

The class raised nearly $4,000, led by two football players who each ate over 100 shrimp (if memory serves, neither of those shellfish-guzzling warriors were physically able to show up to school the next day).

The student behind the Shrimp-A-Thon didn’t hold a formal office in his junior class. But everything about his fundraiser demonstrated real leadership. He had to see the opportunity. He had to sell people on it and convince them to follow him. He had to organize the participants, work with the local Sizzler to host the event, and track the funds raised. And most importantly, he had to take responsibility for a new idea that might not work.

He didn’t get to list “Junior class president” on his college applications. But he could describe the initiative he took, the impact he made, and the leadership skills he displayed in doing so.

The term “leadership” gets thrown around a lot during college admissions discussions. But it’s important for students and their parents to understand that merely holding an office (or starting a club two weeks before you apply to college) isn’t actually leadership. Real leadership is the ability to envision something in the future—a change, a goal, a better outcome, etc.—and then convince people to follow you. Elected officials can (and should!) do those things. But you don’t necessarily need a title, an office, or even authority to do it. See where you want to go, then rally people who want to follow you. If you can do those things, you’re leading.

The Shrimp-A-Thon originator? He went on to study history at UCLA and later completed medical school. Today, he is a physician and the director of a community ER (who would likely discourage patients from eating buckets of deep-fried shrimp).