Not too long ago, a campus group asked me to describe my ideas on leadership. How did I define leadership in general? How did I lead, specifically? Being a researcher, I thought I would consult the experts. But before I could type the word “leadership” into my Google search bar, I decided against it. This group wanted to know what I thought about leadership — they did not ask for a research paper on the leadership.
We all lead every day. The questions are “how” and “to what end?” Below are my thoughts on exactly that.
It was not until I was asked to write a letter addressing my own leadership abilities that I really considered how I understand leadership. I could have logged on to my Amazon account, ordered half a dozen books written by leadership professionals, constructed a thesis statement, and defended my deftly articulated argument in 1-2 pages. Or I could write what I live.
When it comes to leadership comportment we can conduct ourselves through a model of either scarcity, mediocrity, or generosity. Transient leadership may stem from any one of these three models, but only one, I believe, effects positive and lasting change.
Scarcity, the idea that a finite amount of success exists – if you do not get it, someone else will – leads to the corrosive environment of backstabbing, pettiness, or even professional sabotage. Morale deteriorates and with that enthusiasm, energy, and esprit de corps. Scholarships, accepted journal publications, and grant money may externally abound, but this model exacts too high a cost by decaying the interior life.
Mediocrity, despite sounding benign, insidiously degrades the quality of achievement. Sitting in one’s office, the mediocre attitude mumbles, “I will do enough, but no more.” Mediocrity refrains from inviting fellow students to step up to do a little bit better. Each succeeding student generation does just a little bit less than the prior generation, curbing the pursuit of excellence and eventually excellence itself.
Generosity requires the action of at least two people: a giver and a receiver. We cannot advance in isolation but must interact with one another. Through interaction, generosity assembles, builds up, and strengthens. When we offer a compliment, a word of encouragement, or a “learn from my mistakes!” comment, we build solidarity with our fellow students. We freely give the best of ourselves.
Indeed, I have been on the receiving end of generosity so often that it will take me more than one lifetime to break even. I can afford to be generous because I know that there are opportunities for all of us: my fellow GWIS officers! My WiSE junior colleagues! My fellow GGE undergraduate and graduate students! So why not cheer them on, give them the best of what I’ve got, and pump my fist in the air at their achievement?
It has been my privilege in three short years to write letters of recommendation for graduate students; to recommend undergraduates for research projects, graduate school, and promotion; to encourage and vote for shy leaders in student organizations; to critique technical presentations; and to regale students with all my mistakes so they can take off faster, better, smarter than I ever did.