Make things happen

Susan Cain’s recent New York Times piece calls attention to “the glorification of leadership skills, especially in college admissions,” something that leaves many kids “jockeying for leadership positions as résumé padders.”

She proposes at the end of the article:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all…What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand’?”

But here’s some news that may surprise some people—what Cain describes is, in fact, exactly what colleges are looking for.

Maybe colleges don’t always make it clear. Maybe the word “leadership” is too general, especially for 17-year-olds, to encapsulate all the various ways a person can lead, including doing so without running for an office or even telling other people what to do. Or maybe this “jockeying for leadership positions” is yet another piece of the college admissions process that is so deeply entrenched that families can’t bear to change their thinking, no matter what the counselors or the colleges say.

I tackled this topic recently, but it bears repeating: colleges are not impressed by leadership positions alone. What they’re impressed with is excellence, passion, and the desire to contribute beyond one’s self that Cain envisions. Leadership positions are not the only opportunity to demonstrate those traits.

There’s nothing wrong with leadership positions. But the mark of a leader is not the fact that she was named to a leadership position—it’s what she manages to accomplish while holding that position. And as a passionate, engaged, hard-working follower, you can probably accomplish just as much as, if not more than, the person who lists the title on their resume.

If you’re more comfortable as a follower than a leader, please don’t try to change yourself just to fit what you think colleges appreciate. Instead of trying to be something you don’t want to be, spend more time making things happen for activities, groups, people, and causes that you care about.