Volume 77 | Issue 6
November 2009

President's Column: Leadership to save the world

Don Luse

I am currently considering the possibility of creating a “Leadership and Involvement Center” in our union. It is an energizing task and one that I think will add significantly to what we offer our students and our student organizations. Like many things we do, I thought we were exploring new territory only to find that others were developing similar spaces. Why the interest in leadership development in these times?

My guess is that we are all starving for real leaders. Around the world, we see daily evidence of people making decisions based on greed and personal agendas. Dialogue and debate, founding principles of the college union, are becoming lost arts. We see political parties unwilling and sometimes unable to understand the other side, deafly employing an “I’m right, and you’re wrong” position.

However, college unions encourage civil discourse and positive interactions among groups that disagree. We have worked with student leaders for many years, instilling social responsibility and other positive leadership skills. These are the qualities businesses want from our graduates; they expect new employees who are self-aware, show up for work, supervise fairly, communicate clearly, and operate with an understanding of proper ethical behavior. We have taught student leaders how to be good leaders, but we have more work to do if we want to save the world.

As I have talked with colleagues about the development of more leadership training opportunities for our students, I find some real enthusiasm for the task. Yet among students, I was surprised by some hesitation at first. The term “leadership,” and in particular “leadership training,” seems to connote a hierarchical, elitist model to our students. The vision in their minds immediately was a top-down, “I’m the leader and let me teach you how to be a leader” structure. Therefore, we realized the importance of openly valuing students’ current pursuits as leaders on campus. As much as we bemoan the lack of leadership, we see more students engaged and involved in service. Student heroes are actually figuring out ways to address world poverty, hunger, and other social ills. Our students are more global in their perspectives than even we administrators often are, and they seek equal treatment for all. When they hear us talk about leadership, the picture in their minds is an antiquated model.

To overcome the negative connotations, we simply have begun the process of describing what we have always been: the laboratory of citizenship. Our leadership center will provide resources for all students, not just the top members of the class. We will teach people how to work together and how to debate and discuss issues in a civil manner. We will emphasize the fact that learning how to marshal resources, meaning money and space as well as people, is a skill that social entrepreneurs need if they are to achieve their goal of making a positive difference in the world. When we use this kind of language, our students appreciate the idea of the leadership center and become excited.

Despite the overwhelming amount of discontent in the world today, there is an increasing amount of optimism. Such hope usually does not come from government initiatives but more often from a young college student or graduate who says, “I want to make a difference!” As campus professionals, we can maximize our efforts to ensure students have the skills and the confidence to save the world. The confidence part is easy; where we have to concentrate is the skill development part. I am anxious to hear how campus leadership centers and leadership training initiatives are inspiring students to be active citizens in our global society. We can save the world by investing in our future leaders.