#higheredWed: Speaking to Leaders

This past Saturday, September 8, I was privileged to be asked to deliver a keynote address for a student leadership symposium at San Francisco State University. Before nearly 600 student leaders, I spoke about the components of leadership and how they intersected with social justice. The energy in the auditorium was contagious. It reminded me of how much I love what I do and the opportunity to share with undergraduates.

Below are my remarks; I went off-script in a few places, but this is pretty much the substance of what I shared. Read them over and let me know what you think. What lessons about leadership have you learned?


5th Annual Student Leadership Symposium
San Francisco State University
September 8, 2012
Keynote Speaker: Dafina Lazarus Stewart, PhD

Good morning, everyone! How’s everybody doing today?

Thank you so much to your student affairs staff, particularly to your Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life, Dr. Mary Ann Begley, for bringing me here today and her co-collaborator for this event Sarah Bauer, Director of Student Involvement and Career Center. Let’s hear it for them both and the entire staff that worked hard to bring you this symposium! Come on, you can do better than that!

You are gathered here today for this symposium because you have been identified as leaders. Perhaps you are an executive officer for a student organization on campus, a social or academic fraternity; or perhaps you are here today because you are a resident assistant or an officer of a residence hall organization. Perhaps you have served as a peer facilitator in a class, led a team doing a community service project, or helped to organize student activism on your campus. Whatever brings you here today, I am here to tell you that none of those things make you a leader.

Yup, that’s right. You’re not a leader because you hold a certain position. You’re not even a leader because someone told you that you were a leader. You’re a leader for three reasons; I’ll talk about each of these in turn. You’re a leader because 1) there are people walking with you; 2) you are going someplace where others want to be; and 3) you do the small things that lead to big results. I arrived at these insights based not so much on my own experiences as a student leader because that was 20 years ago – I know, I know, I look like a college student.  It’s really been my own experiences as an advisor for two undergraduate student organizations and working with graduate students who are advising groups that has brought me to these ideas.

Let’s go back to that first idea: You are a leader because there are people walking with you. Notice that I didn’t say that you’re a leader because there are people following you. That would be simple enough, wouldn’t it? Besides, it also seems like a reasonable criterion. We mistakenly often talk about leading and leaders in the absence of following and followers. If you are a leader, there ought to be people following you – otherwise, you’re not leading, you’re just walking. Makes sense right? Sure it does, but that idea puts you in the wrong place in relation to everyone else; leadership is not about you.

Yes, leadership is inherently relational; it’s not an autonomous activity, no one leads in isolation. You can only lead in the context of community. If we take the philosophy that leaders have followers, then we have to ask why should people follow us? We could argue that people follow someone because they believe in them, they trust them, and on some level, because they feel connected to them. And that’s okay, that’s even pretty good. But when people follow us for those reasons, our leadership in our group will be short-lived and shallow. I can think of more than one example, and I bet you can too, of a student organization that had a very charismatic leader. While that person was president, the membership grew and people were excited about what was going on. Things seemed to be going great – for a while. But then, that student graduated and when that dynamic leader was gone, the organization went into decline. Members left and all the life seemed to drain out of the group. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, what happened? Why was the group unable to sustain the growth and enthusiasm it had experienced under that dynamic individual? Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.

I make this out to be a pretty bright group and I bet you came up with something like this: That, yes, although leading is inherently a relational activity, you are not the center of it. You aren’t leading if you’re walking by yourself, because leadership does necessitate followership. However, that puts you in front and everybody else behind you and that looks like old-school leadership, not like the progressive thinking that recognizes that everyone has a contribution to make that can be valued and used to advance the group. So let’s change that metaphor from leader in front and followers behind to leaders being in the company of those they led, leaders being the first among equals, sort of like the “first-follower.” See how that changes the dynamic, just even how you think about leadership, when you put yourself in the midst of your members? The people walking with you can’t just be in it for you, because you won’t always be there, but we hope that the organization will. That leads me to my next point.

You are a leader because you are going someplace where others want to be. The course you set should be determined by the vision, mission, and goals of the group. Your fellow students are going to stay engaged and commit their time and effort to the organization, because you’ve effectively crafted and communicated a vision that they are willing to buy into – you’re going someplace where they want to be. That someplace is toward the realization of the purpose of your organization. It takes a certain amount of progressive thinking to facilitate the development of vision and mission. Vision-crafting and mission development are not things that leaders do on their own, in isolation – not if they want other people to join the effort. You also shouldn’t approach it as a product to be sold with you as its salesperson.

Let me be honest with you: If you find yourself trying to convince others to get on board with you, then you probably are headed someplace that no one else wants to go. If you look around and the only people consistently showing up to your general body meetings are you and your exec board, you’ve got a problem with where you’re going. But maybe that’s not a problem and it’s great – if you are okay with your membership consisting of just the executive officers and the organization going defunct once you all graduate. I would assume though that you’re not okay with that, but I shouldn’t make assumptions. Are you okay with that?

I didn’t think so! So how do we prevent that from happening? Visions are best crafted with input from a broad array of other members. As a leader, though, it is your task to think creatively about where the organization can go. This requires having a big picture, a panoramic view of the organization that includes an understanding of its past, its present, and what threats and opportunities lay in its future. Conveying this information to your members is something you can uniquely offer as a leader (likely with the help of an advisor or alumni members) that others may not be able to provide. The vision and mission of your organization has to be big enough to allow for growth and innovation, while maintaining a thread of connection to the principles that guided it in the past. Consider this: Where do you want the organization to go as a member? What did you need from this group before you became an officer? What attracted you to this organization in the first place? Thinking of yourself as a passenger, instead of as the driver, will help to remind you of the view from the back of the bus.

Crafting a collective vision and mission is also important because getting the group to its destination is not just about you. You can’t be the only one driving the bus. Missions are accomplished and visions are realized through dedicated teamwork, not through the single-minded determination of an individual or a small group of people.

You are a leader because you do the small things that lead to big results. Your strengths and success as a leader are not determined in the big moments when the spotlights are on. It’s not because your biggest event of the year went off without a hitch and you had a higher attendance than ever before. It is not a result of getting an interview in the student newspaper with your picture on the front page. It’s not because you were able to make a significant change to university policy or took on some major issue on campus. Shining in the big moments doesn’t make you a leader. By the way, having big moments to shine in isn’t a requirement for being a leader either. Being a leader is not some surreal, larger-than-life role that you have to be almost superhuman to play.

In fact, real leadership is quite the opposite. Honing your competence as a leader happens in the small moments that happen every day that few people will ever see. It’s taking the time to make sure you know the university’s policies governing student organizations. It’s making sure that you really do follow-up with all those students who signed up to get more information at the student organization fair. Leadership is arriving early to set up an event and staying late to break down, even if others didn’t show up but said they would. Leaders pay attention to group dynamics and work to resolve conflict. Leaders are made when there’s dirty work to be done, work that doesn’t get mentioned in the student newspaper, work that doesn’t get a thank you, but you do it anyway.

It’s the everyday things, the small stuff, that accumulate and lead to big results. The time you take sending emails, learning university policy, following up on the mundane tasks necessary to prepare for an event will pay off on the long run in increased membership, building good relationships with your advisors and other university staff that can lead to changes in policy, and the event that makes the front page of the student newspaper. As Miley Cyrus sings in the only song of hers that I actually like, “life’s a climb” and it’s the climb that reveals who you are and strengthens you as a leader, not the mountaintop.

Do a self-assessment based on these 3 criteria: You’re a leader if there are people walking with you; you’re a leader if you are going someplace others want to go; and, you’re a leader when you do the small things that lead to big results.

So, are you a leader? Show of hands, how many of you feel confident that you can answer that question in the affirmative?

Okay, how many of you aren’t so sure that you are a leader based on those 3 criteria?

It is okay to acknowledge that, to say – wait, maybe I’m not really a leader, yet, or I don’t exercise leadership consistently. Leadership is something you grow into and have to work to maintain. It’s not a light switch – you don’t suddenly stop being a leader, nor do you become a leader and then that’s it. You can demonstrate strong, positive, effective leadership in one situation and then in another situation, you can fall short.

Leading takes work and consistent practice. It’s an active word that is built on the concepts I already shared above. Those characteristics make you an effective leader; they don’t necessarily make you a positive leader. Positive leaders are change agents who inspire others to act in ways that lead to greater equity and which broaden inclusion. So I want to talk a little bit about being that kind of leader, a socially just leader.

Socially just leaders aren’t know-it-alls, they aren’t “P-C police,” and they are not immune from making mistakes. Socially just leaders are change agents who commit to a vision of their group, their organization, and their campus that seeks to build bridges that unite their peers across lines of difference, not build walls that divide. Their vision of what could be sees whose voices are missing from their group and strives to find out why so that they can make room for those voices to come to the table. They advocate for those who are not present and stand as allies with those who are trying to make change. Leaders who are change agents use their group’s status and position to support other groups. Leaders who value social justice, continue to expand their own awareness, knowledge, and skills, recognizing that multicultural competence is a journey, not a destination.

Incorporating social justice in your definition of what it means to you to be a leader takes courage and determination. It’s risky to challenge your peers, especially when you may be unsure of exactly why something someone said or did reinforces inequity instead of dismantles it. Courage, boldness, and the willingness to risk speaking up for what’s right instead of staying quiet – these characteristics mark leaders who are trying to make a difference.

Determination is also an important trait for change agents. You can’t give up at the first sign of opposition, whether it’s from a fellow student who is resisting outreach to draw in new members who will diversify the group or an institutional policy that hasn’t caught up with the times. Determination and persistence come from believing that change is worth the trouble. More equitable practices and policies and greater inclusivity don’t happen overnight. A clear vision of where you’re going is necessary to stay on the path.

Finally, this type of leadership doesn’t rest easy just because everything is going great in their own group. Most of you will likely recognize this Disney Channel movie line, “We’re all in this together.” I know it’s cheesy but it’s true. You can’t have a “me-and-mine” mentality and call yourself a change agent, committed to social justice. Supporting the success of other groups brings good karma to your organization. Moreover, seeking opportunities to collaborate with others across lines of difference will enhance your multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills. Great programming ideas can come out of attending to the intersections of identity. As leaders, you have a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the learning and development of your peers by proposing new ideas for programming and meeting topics. You’ll generate interest, curiosity, and excitement and that will benefit your organization and the campus as a whole.

You got here today because of your positional leadership. You will participate in workshops the rest of the day focused on various leadership skills, because you care about being good leaders. It is my hope that you continue throughout this day, thinking of the ways that you exercise leadership that have nothing to do with your position or title. I hope you will leave here today committed to making leadership a part of your daily routine, because I’m going to tell you a secret. Ready for it?

Okay, here’s the secret: You can be a leader whether you have a title or not by promoting and facilitating teamwork, by helping your group keep its mission and vision at the center of its activities, by doing the little things that must be done but which few people notice, and by working toward more socially just outcomes in your club and across your university. If you do these things, you’ll always be a leader regardless of your “official role.” That’s leadership that matters in both the short- and the long-term.

I’m going to ask you a question now, but I’m going to give you the answer first. Here’s the answer: “Right here.” Got it? Okay, now for the question: “Where my leaders at?”

Good. I’m glad you’re here because that’s exactly where we need you to be. Thank you.