The Battle Between Formal & Informal Leadership

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December 4, 2012 by pmilleredu

I have an observation and a thought… Over the last few years I have seen a pattern of students wanting to get involved but shying away from positions of formal leadership. I have seen quite a few students create additional leadership “positions” but water down the formality and official capacity of the position.

 My thought is that we as a society are starting to frown upon formal leadership positions and celebrate informal leaders. Society has had a growing association with formal leaders acting for them and informal leaders acting for others. I by no means think this is universal but something I have seen in different states, at very different institutions and across student demographics. This idea that students want to be a part of something and make a different but do not want to have a formal role is something I have observed with increasing frequency over the last few years.

The root factors seem to be the celebration of doing something because you want to, not because you have to and doing something for others and not for yourself. I have seen distaste towards anything with a sense of obligation and personal benefit. When your position dictates that you have to do something it somehow sullies the idea of leadership and service. When you gain something from the experience then it doesn’t really count as helping others.

In my previous position I saw this pop-up in two different areas: service learning and floor leadership positions. We had started a new initiative to get students more involved and give them more responsibility over their own floor community. This idea was met with overall enthusiasm and excitement. People wanted to be a real part of their community and not just passive participants. However when it came time to actually volunteer for leadership roles many people wanted to water down the responsibilities and formality of it. At first I wondered if they were trying to give themselves an easy out by saying “Well, I am not the floor President or anything, I just help out where I can.” However, while I saw them water down the titles, they didn’t water down their expectations of themselves or others. This got me thinking about why this was happening across different floors with very different RAs.

I am always surprised that some people still think our current students do not care about or are not involved in service. Luckily, I hear this less often than I did 2 years ago, but I do still hear it. Students today tend to be very involved in service and very loyal to their organizations. They usually come to college already having a personal connection to the groups they serve. So it was interesting for me, while working with students to plan a service-learning project that they were so turned off by the learning and assignment aspect. Their pushback came because they felt that it couldn’t be real service if they had to do it and if they were gaining from it. For it to truly matter (and count as service) they needed to do it because they wanted to, not as a part of a class and they didn’t want to talk about what they would gain from the experience. This brings to mind the Friends episode where Phoebe and Joey argue if selfless good deeds exist or not. Phoebe believes that Joey’s good deed of volunteering for a PBS fundraiser doesn’t count because he is also doing it to get on television. The clip of their argument can be found here (it’s a great episode!)

I was seeing this distaste with a sense of obligation and personal gains alongside a strong desire to do something and get involved. They just wanted to do so on their own terms. This is a not a new concept in college by any means. Just look at how many award-winning books are trashed by students once they become the Freshman Reader. However this was the first time I was seeing this across demographics and different communities in regards to formal leadership and service.

This thought recently resurfaced when speaking with a student about a leadership institute that changed its name because students were more likely to go when references to leadership were taken out of the title. There is a trend to want to be a leader (with a little l) versus a Leader (with a big L). The leader is there on a voluntary basis and works just as hard as the Leader, but doesn’t receive the same formal recognition nor have the same level of external obligation.

We need to work with this rather than against it or ignore it. In order for us to work with it we need to change how we market and discuss our leadership opportunities and I definitely count service as a leadership opportunity.

Keep the focus on the impact for other people and the community. We want to paint a picture using stories of how serving in a formal role truly benefits others. This fuels the internal sense of obligation and accountability, rather than the external. In order for us to tap into the fierce sense of loyalty students today have shown the service organizations they work with, we need to market in similar ways by presenting the need and how a position fills that need.

When we discuss the learning and gains that come from being a Leader (with a big L) we should frame this in how it helps them better serve their communities. The benefit of a rewarding experience is only tempting if it is rewarding in the right way. The motivating benefit for leadership is at odds with the motivating benefit students seek from classes. I hear students often ask “How will this class help me in real life?”; the focus is truly on personal gain. Students see these as very different which means that their thought process for each will be very different. In order for us to better gain buy-in for our leadership opportunities and service learning we need to be able to differentiate between what motivates students. They are motivated by different things in different circumstances and while this is an obvious statement I wonder if we have fully embraced it. When I reflect on my own practices and beliefs I know that haven’t, not fully.

We know how much students gain from leadership involvement and service learning and for us to get them more invested we need to address it from their point of view. Phoebe struggled to find a truly selfless good-deed and we know that students do gain something from each experience. As Student Affairs practitioners we work to make sure students get the most out of their experience and gain something valuable. We just don’t need that be our main selling point.

-Paul Jacobson-Miller



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