11/1/16: The Leadership Obsession

As I have said before, I am currently in the process of applying to college. On several of my applications, there is a required essay question that looks like this:

“Tell us about a leadership experience you’ve held, and what you learned from leading others.”

In fact, most of the schools I’m applying to talk about leadership somewhere in their mission statement. Universities today are obsessed with “educating global leaders” and “preparing our youth to lead.” A necessary qualification for our admittance, then, is previous leadership experience from high school to build on as we progress through the undergraduate years.

Of course, I have nothing against leadership itself- the world can always benefit from having more benevolent, understanding, and intelligent leaders to guide us through modern problems like climate change and international tension. (And, the United States today could benefit from having a viable, honest candidate for national leadership in general.) Leaders are a critical component of society, but in our obsession with leadership, we have forgotten to value the most important piece of the equation: followers.

Leaders cannot exist without followers, of course; to lead is to imply that someone is being led. Followers actualize the mission and goals of the leader. They fuel workplaces, resist oppression, and benefit themselves and the world by virtue of their voluntary service to the leader. What if Steve Jobs, the original CEO and creator of Apply, had been the only person to work for the company? What if Martin Luther King Jr. were the only person to follow his own demand to boycott the bus system? Followers make change possible. Without them, leadership has no value and simply cannot exist.

My fear is that my generation is being groomed to believe that we must either become leaders of current organizations, or go off on our own to create something new to lead. Some members of our generation need to fill these roles, but the vast majority of us will inevitably become followers- we will have bosses and mentors and superintendents for most, if not all, of our lives. We will surely be followers when we enter the job market, right after we leave the university that promised to turn us into a leader, and made us think that our value was based on our leadership potential. This contradiction, galvanized by secondary schools and universities across the world, is perhaps one of the most dangerous to the mental health of my generation. We enter the workplace as followers and become instantly depressed: “Why am I on the bottom? I thought I was a leader. Following is pointless- it has no value.”

We need to deescalate the importance and fixation on leadership in higher education. We should still give our youth access to leadership positions, and train our youth to properly manage and direct other people, but we can no longer hold up leadership as the essential pillar of a worthwhile career and life. We need to reinvest in the value of our followers, and teach leaders to pay attention to the desires and ideas of the people they lead. We need to give power and purpose back to the followers in the world, who truly are the ones we have to thank for the lives we live today. I would have no material possessions, no education, and nowhere to live without factory workers, construction workers, and teachers who operate under Division Heads and principals. I owe the comforts and opportunities in my life to followers as well as leaders, and this is too often forgotten.

I hope that you remember that following is just as vital a function as leading. There is no shame, no “failure,” in completing the orders set about by someone else. If you believe in the goals and mission of your leader, then your work is meaningful. You are building towards a vision that you care for, and turning your potential into good for yourself and mankind. Even the best and wisest leaders need followers to turn their ideas into reality; by following the best and brightest, we can join in their ideas and make progress in the world.

The human race is an ecosystem, and it takes all parts to keep it thriving and progressing. We must not take our followers for granted. Should they go extinct, believing their jobs unimportant, our world would fall apart.

7 thoughts on “11/1/16: The Leadership Obsession

  1. very nicely thought out – I didn’t have to deal with nearly the same pressures (nor tuition), and honestly, it seems like it’s done without much thought anymore. However, it depends what is meant by the word “leader,” because that doesn’t necessarily translate to “role model” or “authority” or “powerful” or even “coordinator” “facilitator” “coach” “advocate” or any of the other roles that are played by people who deliver orders for others to follow. I think the hierarchical system is presumed, whereas it is entirely possible to have de-centralized, non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical systems in which decisions are carried out collectively, or on a rotating basis, or through proximate feedback loops, or any number of other alternatives. So, when they ask you about your leadership experience, I think it would do well to flesh out every aspect of it, including being an excellent listener, and knowing when it’s your turn to follow.

    thanks for sharing, and all the best in furthering your education and knowledge.


    1. Hello and sorry for the delayed reply- I’m finally on break and have time to manage all of my lingering comments and emails! I love your concept of a wider leadership, where hierarchy is not the assumed format of societal structure. Our society would do well to move in the direction of collaboration and cooperation, and away from competition in more domains of life. Unfortunately, if often seems to me that we forget there is any way to structure our organizations aside from the hierarchical format. Thank you!!


  2. Avery, I have been so inspired by your careful, considerate, and thoughtful work! Thank you for sharing your important and balanced voice with the world! I’m just curious about what lies ahead for you after high school. Feel free to ignore this if you want to! Where are you looking in terms of colleges/other post graduation plans?


    1. Thank you so much, and SO sorry for the delay- I’m managing two WordPress sites right now and often forget to log into this one to read comments. Next year, I’ll be attending Stanford University and probably majoring in psychology, human biology, and something unrelated (creative writing perhaps!). If you’d like to be more in touch, you can always email me at averyr2@gmail.com. Thank you so much for your kindness and if you’d like, I’d love to learn about you too!


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