The Part of Leadership Students Usually Don't Embrace

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Let’s equip our students to embrace both the credit and the blame of leadership.

Leadership is a buzzword on campuses today. When I began formally studying the topic among high school and college students, only 70 universities across America had programs for leadership development. Today, more than 1,000 colleges have formal programs and courses and even majors or minors in leadership.

Leadership is now a category in the minds of millions of young adults.

Yet, while more students, staff and faculty have embraced the importance of leader development, there has been pushback from some circles. Some academics believe there is too much emphasis placed on it, since many students feel excluded and because leadership is often misconstrued as a power trip. I’ve addressed these concerns in other articles. Today—I’d like to address one tangible duty of leadership most students find difficult to embrace. For that matter, so do we as adults.

It’s the downside of leadership.

  • Making the tough call.
  • Hosting that ugly confrontation.
  • Receiving some harsh criticism.

These are the moments that separate true leaders from the “wannabes.” Anyone can enjoy a leadership role on the glitzy days. Accolades. Awards. Recognition. It’s the dark side that prevents people (young and old) from leading.

Credit and Blame

The truth is—leaders get credit for more than they should when things go right. After all, it’s likely that many team members were involved. However, on the other end of the spectrum, leaders get more blame than they deserve when things go wrong. And too often, this is enough to discourage students from beginning the leadership journey.

We love getting the credit. We hate getting the blame.

One of the most insightful statements I’ve read on this subject was made by Marion Folsom, of the Eastman Kodak Company: “You are going to find that 95% of all decisions you’ll ever make in your career could be made as well by any reasonably intelligent high school sophomore. But—they’ll pay you for the other 5%.”

Doing the Hard Stuff of Leadership

H. W. Andrews said, “Failure to make a decision after due consideration of all the facts will quickly brand a person as unfit for a position of responsibility. Not all of your decisions will be correct. None of us is perfect. But if you get into the habit of making decisions, experience will develop your judgment to a point where more and more of your decisions will be right.” This results in you becoming a better leader.

The Tough Call

Peter Drucker once said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”  Leaders gain credibility when they are able to make difficult decisions—or tough calls. These involve a display of character and wisdom. It’s about doing what is right above doing what is convenient. Decisions are hard when the stakes are high, but life is worse when we are too weak to make any decision.

The Ugly Confrontation

By this I’m referring to the decision to confront a person who has done damage, even when it’s easier to let it go. No one enjoys this—but it’s what good leaders are willing to do. We confront when we recognize paying a price to straighten things out now will lead to easier times later. Coach Bill Parcells said, “Confrontation is healthy because it clears the air quickly.” Pay now, play later. Amy Goldsworthy said, “Confrontation is something I accept as part of the process, though not its purpose.”

The Harsh Criticism

I believe leaders are like lightning rods. (This is one of our Habitudes). They attract the strike but good leaders ground it so that the building (the team) isn’t damaged. We must help students understand that criticism goes with the territory of leadership. It doesn’t mean the leader’s bad. It means they’re in charge, and ultimately responsible for what happens. Dr. M. Scott Peck wrote, “The best decision-makers are those who are willing to suffer the most over the decisions, but still retain their ability to be decisive.”

Seven Action Steps to Help Your Student Leaders

As you lead your leaders, I suggest these steps regarding this topic:

  1. Model a strong backbone. Good leadership is more caught than taught. If they see you manage the tough stuff of leadership, they can emulate it better.
  2. Talk to your students about tough calls, confrontations and criticism. Remind them of how normal these elements are in a good leader’s life.
  3. Tell stories of how leaders improve and become more productive when they are willing to endure the tough stuff of leadership.
  4. Invite outside leaders to speak to your team—leaders who’ve made tough decisions and experienced difficult times.
  5. Connect these tough calls to one’s health. Nate Parker writes, “Any psychologist will tell you that healing comes from honest confrontation with our injury or with our past. Whatever that thing is that has hurt us or traumatized us, until we face it head on, we will have issues moving forward in a healthy way.”
  6. Tackle a problem in front of your student leaders. Make this a “show and tell” time. Robert Shuler said, “The impossible problem is solved when we see that the problem is only a tough decision waiting to be made.”
  7. Invite them into an experience where they can practice these skills. You can set it up or let it pop up naturally, but help them to apply this truth. Real strength stems from lifting the weights in the gym, not merely discussing the value of them.

Let’s equip our students to embrace both the credit and the blame of leadership.

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