What even is a leader?
Girls Leadership Project. Leadership positions. "Do you consider yourself a leader?" survey questions. Leadership camps. Leadership awards. Leader, leader, leader, leader.
What is this obsession with leadership? And what even is a leader?
For as long as I can remember, I've always been told to aspire to be a leader. Even in the days of early elementary school, I would always want to be chosen to be the "line leader," so that my twenty-one other classmates would walk obediently behind me as I confidently lead them and forged the daunting path through the intimidating, florescent hallways to the cafeteria. But is this image, of one person superiorly standing at the front of a line of people, a true representation of leadership? Of course not. More and more, I'm realizing that my previous idea of leadership, and the idea that society seems to endorse, is actually quite skewed. Leadership isn't about talking the loudest, or even about being the most well-known. Leadership isn't contained in a certain position or only achievable with a certain title. Rather, leadership is collection of inner qualities, that we all--regardless of circumstance--have the ability to cultivate, that enable us to be passionate in what we do, take initiative, and, ultimately, inspire others.
Yet, even at Andover, the first, skewed definition of leadership seems to be the prevailing on. As of my peers, John, astutely brought up, only uppers and seniors as seen as leaders. If you were to ask Freshman, or even other students on campus, if they consider Freshman to be leaders on campus, they would likely say no. After all, they aren't very well-known and, more importantly, have no leadership positions, right? But that's the thing: this mindset needs to change. You don't need to speak at an All School Meeting or be head of a club to be a leader. Being a leader isn't conforming to a stereotypical mold--being a leader is a mindset and way of thinking and acting. On campus, one of the clubs that is considered to "cultivate leadership" the most is Model UN, a club that I'm passionate about and involved in. Yet the more I think about it, the more false I find this to be. To be the "leader" or "best delegate" in a Model UN conference, the goal, quite frankly, is to dominate. You want to speak the most often, the most eloquently, and the most convincingly. You want others to do work for you and to seem like you are the one in charge. Yes, I suppose that you could say that, in some way, you're inspiring others, but I find that Model UN is missing one of the most important characteristics of being a leader: selflessness.
When we think of leaders, we think of Mahatma Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Nelson Mandela, of political figures that have done great things for others. We never praise someone who only acts for themselves as a leader. In fact, I think society's obsession with leadership is because we realize that we need those who will think of others first and take action to help others. A leader does need clarity and conviction and courage and consistency, but I think that ultimately, leaders are only those who act in the interests of others.
And this is where the Gandhian ideals of the countless NGOs we've been working with come in. "Be the change". I've heard this phrase upward of a hundred times; it's been so battered and abused by modern day campaigns and slogans that by the time it reaches my ear, it means little to nothing. But now I realize: no matter how many times you stand at a podium or no matter how eloquent and convincing you are, you will never inspire anyone by just saying things. It's actions of passion and courage that will inspire people. To inspire others and instigate change, you must embody what you stand for---and only then will you be a leader.