Leadership lessons are everywhere

It’s easy for high school students to fall into the trap of believing that leadership is reserved for leadership positions. The editor of the yearbook. The captain of the hockey team. The treasurer of the student body. Elected or appointed positions are almost always reserved for a select few. They’re the leaders. Everyone else is just following.

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

I’m not trying to minimize those roles, because if you do them well, you’ll learn a lot about leadership. But doing them well does not mean asking people for updates on the yearbook layout, or calling the coin flip at the beginning of the game, or giving the treasurer’s update when it’s your turn in the weekly meeting. Real leadership means leaning into situations where there is no roadmap, figuring out how to change things for the better, and getting other people to follow you.

You don’t need a leadership position to do those things.

The yearbook budget just got slashed. Without some new funds fast, no yearbook this year. Who’s going to step up and find the buffer for the budget?

The hockey team has lost eight straight games, two players have stopped showing up to practice, and everyone is starting to question the coach. Who’s going to step up and bring the team together?

The student council has some of the most engaged students on a disengaged campus. Who’s going to step up and ask the tough questions, offer possible solutions, and take some responsibility for unleashing the talent that’s assembled in the room?

Wherever and however you’re spending your time in high school, there’s almost certainly an opportunity just waiting for a leader–someone who takes charge of change, with or without a title.

Why can’t that be you?

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, wrote an interesting piece about the leadership lessons she learned while working as a restaurant hostess. High school students, please give this a read and consider two things:

1. What leadership lessons are you learning just by doing what you’re already doing?
2. What leadership opportunities are there just waiting for someone to take hold of them?

Ten ways to make valuable contributions

Too many high school students view their success in group activities as measured only by accolades or official titles. But there are lots of ways you can make valuable contributions that your group—and the colleges you apply to—will appreciate. Here are ten suggestions.

1. Improve relationships with constituents.
Be the server at the coffee shop who remembers people’s names, the member of student government who engages with the student body, or the lighting tech who gets others interested in coming to the performance. Helping connect the group with those outside of it is a valuable public relations contribution.

2. Solve the problems other people can’t solve.
What’s a challenge your group faces repeatedly and just can’t seem to solve? The ability to spot solutions is a valuable skill that can make you invaluable to the group. If you’ve got that talent, put it to work and let your fixes fly.

3. Manage complex projects.
Managing a fundraiser, planning a junior prom, organizing a team retreat—these are big jobs with a lot of moving parts, and plenty of potential for things to go sideways. But some people are at their best when they’re taking a complex job with a variety of inputs and shipping it out the door.

4. Inspire, teach, and make others better.
Ever seen that person that the rest of the group will follow to do almost anything? Those people are irreplaceable. And they don’t need to be granted authority to do it.

5. Become the domain expert.
What if you became the expert on once slice of your group’s work? The runner who knows the most about how elite distance runners train in the off-season, the writer with a deep understanding of the role of journalism in reporting news, the photographer who knows so much about lenses and exposures and lighting that they always get the perfect shot. When you know your stuff, and you share that knowledge, you’re making a valuable contribution.

6. Be a maximizer.
Do you look at things that are already good and ask, “How can this be even better?” Groups sometimes spend so much time fixing what’s broken that they miss opportunities to maximize their areas of strength. Amplifying bright spots is a sure way to improve just about anything, and if you’re the one who sees those opportunities, the group will look to you to keep sharing your talent.

7. Make new people feel at home.
It’s hard to be the new employee on his first shift, the recently promoted player at her first practice with the varsity team, or the new kid at school joining the history class discussion on day one. Can you make them feel at home? Can you make that transition a little easier so they can get comfortable and start making their own contributions? Most group memberships in high school don’t last forever, and turnover means there will always be new people joining who could use a friendly welcome to make things easier.

8. See what’s possible.
Not everyone can peer into the future and envision a way to make it better. In a group, instead of saying, “This is what we’ve always done,” this version says, “I see a new and better way.” Do you see that vision? Can you communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to your group? If so, chances are you’ll get some followers who support your vision. And once you’ve got followers, you’re a leader, with or without a leadership position.

9. Unleash your enthusiasm.
Are you inherently positive, always able to spot the good in any situation? Are you quick to smile and reluctant to let a bad mood get the best of you? Genuine enthusiasm is like a group pick-me-up. It makes everyone a little happier, a little more positive, and consequently, a little better at what they do.

10. Become the best.
I listed this last because it’s the hardest and the most exclusive. But it still deserves a place on the list. If you’re the very best musician in the orchestra, player on the tennis team, or mathlete in the math club, you’re making the group better with your excellence. If your talent and hard work puts you in that position, assume the mantle proudly. But don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to contribute, and the point of being in any group is to help the group—not just yourself—be successful.

Everyone can win something

My first soccer team, “The Jets,” was a collection of 7-year-olds of varying athletic skill and equally varying levels of interest in the game. At our end-of-the-year team banquet, the coach ensured the awards ceremony left nobody unrecognized. A few certificates were presented to players who’d really earned the distinction, like the “Best All-Around Player.” But a few were just nice versions to ensure nobody was left out, like “Best Passer.” Patrick took that one home, but I don’t ever recall him successfully passing a ball. I won “Best Left Winger,” and I’m not entirely sure which category—deserved or honorary—I fell into.

But what was purely ceremonial at age 7 can be very different at age 17. Even the worst player on the team can do something that makes them an appreciated member, whatever kind of team it is.

If you examined your contributions, effort, and impact within your chosen activity, what award would you legitimately be eligible for?

Most spirited?
Best attitude?
Most likely to show up on time, every time?
Most organized?
Hardest worker?
Most encouraging?

Impact comes in many forms, and not all of them are eligible for actual awards. If your impact doesn’t garner accolades, create your own and work like crazy to win it, just for yourself.

The award can be fictional as long as the reasons are real.

Seek the light

When brainstorming a college essay with a Collegewise student, our counselors know when a topic has real potential—the moment a student lights up when telling us about it.

That pure, involuntary spark in a student’s face and voice when they tell us all about their favorite class, that one achievement of which they’re most proud, the feeling when they learned they’d been promoted to “shift leader” at their part-time job–whatever it is, genuine emotion cannot be faked. It draws the listener in, wanting to hear even more about the experience that’s generating that reaction right in front of us. And that’s exactly the feeling a good college essay should inspire in the reader.

The best college essays don’t necessarily have to be about positive experiences—they just need to be sincere, engaging, and an effective way for a reader to get to know the real student behind the application. But when the words come freely and easily during a brainstorming session, when the student seems eager to share more, and especially when we see their mood and energy improve, the topic on the table is the fuel that caused the change. And that’s almost always a tale worth exploring for essay potential.

For students writing essays for your applications, seek this light. Go towards those topics that don’t require a lot of cajoling for you to find, and even better, those that you enjoy discussing and exploring with an interested listener.

And for students progressing through your younger high school years, seek this light. Go towards those subjects and teachers who inspire you to learn more. Go towards those activities you’d choose to do even if they had no bearing on your future college applications. Go towards opportunities and experiences that inspire you to bring your best self and work over those you do out of obligation.

Imagine how many stories you’d have to tell when you apply to college. And imagine how much more successful and enjoyable the journey to that time will be.

Fit in or stand out?

Too many kids go through high school following the college-prep crowds. Other people sign up for clubs, so they sign up for the same clubs. Other people do more test prep, so they do more test prep. Other people seek leadership positions, or run for class office, or tally up their totals of community service hours because everyone else is doing it. Is it any wonder that so many kids reach the time to complete college applications and then struggle to stand out?

You can fit in or you can stand out. But it’s almost impossible to do both simultaneously.

The best way to stand out is to make different choices than those who are fitting in do.

Change makers

My number came up for jury duty this week. Anyone who’s gotten this particular call to serve knows that it begins with shuffling everyone scheduled to report that day into one large room for an overview of what to expect. Greg, our clerk, has the unenviable job of beginning his day by facing a room of more than a hundred people, many of whom are there by obligation alone, and explaining the procedures we’ll be following. He was cheerful but also particularly effective in that he changed the room in the first sixty seconds with his explanation of jury reimbursement.

“You’ll be compensated ten dollars a day, which I know is more than most of you paid to park here this morning. That figure isn’t something we’re proud of. In fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed since the Eisenhower administration.”

It came off as more empathetic than comedic, but it sure did get a laugh from a tough crowd. And with just one sentence, he won the room over in the most subtle but effective of ways—by showing us that he understood what we were feeling and experiencing.

Greg likely gives some version of that 20-minute overview every day. It would be so easy to just plod through it, to resign himself to the idea that nobody in the room particularly cared what he had to say and that there really was no point in doing more than the bare minimum.

But he’s clearly engaged in his job. He embraces the opportunity to change the posture of everyone in that room, not by following instructions or reading a script, but by bringing some emotional labor to the task at hand. Greg may not have the power to change the system, but he’s got the power to change the day for a lot of people. I’m guessing what we witnessed was just a glimpse of the magic he brings to work.

One of the best ways to stand out is to make change. And you don’t need a title or even a room full of people to do it.

A student who patiently tutors someone from a D to a B in algebra is changing that student’s academic progress. A student who finds ways to make the gym work as a senior prom location instead of bemoaning the reality that a different venue fell through is changing people’s moods. A student who treats every customer who orders a burger when she’s behind the counter like they’ve just made her day by showing up is changing people all day. None of these opportunities require special training or scarce opportunities. They’re available to you in ways that you’re already spending your time every day.

There’s a difference between executing and engaging, between just doing what you’re told and creating an interaction that’s bigger than the work. Not everyone can do what Greg did in front of a crowd. But everyone can do for someone or something what he did for our jury room.

Imagine what would happen if you made a point to consciously create change in whatever you’re doing. Sure, you’d make things better for a lot of people around you. But it’s hard to see how becoming a change maker wouldn’t also change you–and your college admissions chances.

Your value is their value

University of Virginia laudably goes out of its way to point out that they are not one of those schools that admits single-digit percentages of students and that the activities they value on an application may not mirror those of their more highly selective collegiate compatriots. But I can’t think of a selective college that would not agree with UVA’s recommendations for activities as described in their recent blog post.

It’s not about the activities you choose or even the total number of hours you spend doing any or all of them. It’s about your ability to seek out and engage with things you enjoy doing. Yes, the more selective the college, the bigger the impact you’ll need to demonstrate to separate yourself from the rest of the over-achieving applicants from around the world. But even the students interested in those colleges won’t get closer to admission by choosing the activities they think the college values most.

The more you value your chosen activities, the more your chosen colleges will value your choices.

Is “Find your passion” bad advice?

“Passion” has become something of a buzzword in college admissions. It’s what colleges say they appreciate. It’s what counselors advise kids to bring to the forefront in their applications. And I’ve certainly preached passion here. When a student finds, commits to, and then relates an interest that genuinely excites them, it leads to happier kids and more successful college applications.

But do we do kids a disservice if we lead them to believe that a fully formed passion is out there just waiting to be discovered?

Some people may pick up an instrument or a golf club or a paintbrush and immediately know that they’ve found a calling worth committing to. But that’s not how passion and people usually find each other.

What’s far more common is for a student (or an adult) to explore a variety of interests and eventually find something they initially enjoy. They spend some time learning the craft and find they have a knack for it. They get hooked on that feeling of continuously getting better at something that matters to them. Taken to a logical extreme, that commitment can eventually be defined as a passion. But it doesn’t happen overnight. And it often was an unpredictable discovery in retrospect.

When applied to college admissions, passion is best defined as an interest that lights a teenager up today. Teenagers are not fully formed, and the interest needn’t be connected to a future major or career path. While a college would hope that the student applying as an engineering major has more than a casual interest in mathematics, there is no shame in that applicant relating that their performances with their improv comedy troupe are the highlight of their high school week. From the college’s perspective, an applicant with passion has demonstrated the ability to seek, discover, and commit to something where they make an impact. That’s exactly the kind of student who will repeat that process within the boundless opportunities available at college.

Kids entering high school should explore different activities. If they have existing interests they want to follow, great. But if the unexplored seems appealing, we should let them go explore. There’s no formula to find passion, and the spark that could one day lead to it may be in something a student has never before thought to try.

As students progress through high school, encourage them to evaluate how they’re spending their time. What activities and interests do they seem to enjoy most? How might they become even more involved (if they feel the calling to do so), even if doing so required that they leave another activity they’re less attached to behind? That process of seeking and committing is where passion is most likely to present itself.

Passion, at least in its fully formed state, is rarely found and can’t be forced. It’s created when opportunity, interest, and commitment come together.

Here’s some scientific evidence out of Stanford University that “Find your passion” is bad advice. As the study points out, passion isn’t a fixed interest waiting to be discovered—it’s something to develop and cultivate.

Doing more than dabbling

A student asked me this week if writing a feature-length screenplay this summer would be a strong addition to his college applications. “Will this look good?” queries pop up all the time for college counselors, and it’s easy to have a visceral reaction when we assume this is yet another student intent on making every decision based on what colleges ostensibly want to see in an applicant. But I don’t find these questions unreasonable at all. If a college—one that is evaluating a student for admission—asks a student to share something, it’s only logical to want to know the response will be well-received.

Most good counselors approach questions like this in a similar way by first stripping college admissions out of the equation. Does this student really enjoy writing scripts? Is this a project they’re excited about? If college apps worked in such a way that the admissions office would never know about the screenplay, would the student still write it this summer, just because it’s something they genuinely wanted to do?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then go for it. Worry less about the college application impact and embrace the opportunity to do something productive that you really enjoy.

But outside judgement is a powerful force, especially when that evaluation leads to an admissions decision. So once we’ve established that a student is genuinely interested in something, a Collegewise counselor will try to give an honest answer about the potential impact. In this case, most colleges won’t take the time to read a submitted screenplay. And while “Wrote feature-length screenplay” sounds great, there’s no way to verify the strength–or even the existence–of the work. So I encouraged the student to think about ways he could really demonstrate his interest to an even greater degree.

Could he get some friends together who are interested in filming or directing and actually shoot the movie?

Could he take a screenwriting class at a local community college or even online (wouldn’t have to be expensive at all)?

Could he turn it into a play he performs with friends at school?

What else could this student do, this summer or after, that would show this lone screenplay is just one part of an even more compelling picture?

Not every activity should be taken to a reasonable extreme. So I reminded the student that if he just wanted to enjoy the freedom to write whatever he wanted to write without deadlines or direction and then call it a day, he should sit down at the keyboard and let the words fly. Don’t let the purported admissions correlation make that decision for you.

But if the idea of doing more than dabbling within an interest lights you up, then you’ve got the chance to boost your mood, your skills, and your college application.

Create a reason

I write often here about the value of the energy, attention, and personality you contribute both inside and outside of class. There are plenty of ways to make an impact that have nothing to do with honors, awards, and other accolades, and Seth Godin made a list in his most recent post, “Missing from your job description.”

Please don’t let admissions anxiety cause you to discount these suggestions as trivial or just not substantive enough to make a difference. Imagine if you consistently did even just 4-5 of them in those areas where you’re already spending your time. And even more importantly, imagine how many reasons there would then be for you to be missed if you stopped showing up.