A few weeks back, I asked a few questions on Instagram asking all of Access Scholarship’s followers about the topic of leadership. The two questions specifically were: 1) Do you consider yourself to be a leader?” and 2) If you answered ‘yes’, in what ways do you exemplify leadership?”
I was astounded that almost 30% of people responded “NO” to the first question!
Not only did this fuel my fire to want to prove those 30% wrong, but it also told me that perhaps a larger conversation needs to be had on leadership as a whole.
Mainly, what it is, why it’s important (from both a college admissions and real-world perspective), and how everyone has the ability to become a leader in some capacity if they want to be.
So, in this post, I plan to touch on all of those points. And, if you’re interested in a little ~story time~, keep reading to the end to hear a little bit of my own story and experiences navigating various leadership roles that I have held throughout my high school, college, and post-grad career.
The traditional definition of the word leadership, according to Google, is: “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.”
While this is a pretty standard definition, I believe that the true definition of leadership (and being a leader) is a whole lot more intricate than just that.
The act of leadership should not solely be defined by the singular factor of having authority over others (and being recognized for that). When you’re in a leadership position, not only are you expected to have authority over others, but you are expected to do so in a way that teaches, motivates, and inspires them to continue to develop and reach their full potential.
There are many qualities of a strong leader, however, a few that come to mind for me right off the bat include:
Of course, not every person is going to be perfect across the board in demonstrating all of these (and all of the other) qualities that make up a strong and successful leader. However, if you possess even a few of these qualities, chances are you have what it takes to be a great leader.
It’s no secret that being a leader is one of those qualities that most admissions officers highly value in their applicants. In fact, we could go as far as to say that it is one of those magic “buzzwords” that sounds a positive alarm!
Admissions officers like to see that you are taking initiative in an area that you are passionate about. Additionally, leadership in a specific area or activity also shows dedicated commitment, which is another thing that schools tend to put a high value on.
So, from the perspective of a high school student who is on the path to applying to college, finding ways to be a leader in your community, and showcase your leadership through your college application, is only to your benefit.
Now, if you’re a student who is currently in college or graduate school, you may be wondering “Okay, well, I’m clearly past the college admissions process. Does leadership still matter?”
My answer for you is a HARD yes!
Wanna know why?
It’s because yes, you have made it onto your college or graduate school campus (congrats for that, by the way!). Perhaps you held leadership roles in high school that helped you get there, and perhaps you didn’t.
Regardless of where you stand in that mix, chances are you are probably thinking about what comes once you have made it there, and even further down the line, what comes next after you graduate.
For lots of students, this looks something like obtaining relevant work experience during your college years, so that you can be prepared to enter the “real world” after college graduation and get a job in your desired field. And guess what?
In order to achieve both of those things, it is likely that employers (both for internships and for jobs) will look to see if you have leadership experience.
So, the truth is, regardless of what year in school you are, showcasing leadership is important for a number of reasons. Aside from the established fact that it is a quality many college admissions officers and employers look for in students, there are more personal gains as well.
Remember those traits that I listed off earlier? As a leader, it is likely that you will have the chance to develop and refine some, if not all, of those skills and qualities in whatever type of position that you take on. So, from a “working on yourself” standpoint, taking on leadership positions and roles can certainly work to your benefit!
Okay, so we have already recognized the reasons why being a leader can be beneficial for both your personal and professional development. The next question that students tend to ask, though, is “how can I be a leader? What is even considered to be a leadership role?”
I honestly think that this is the part of the process where most students get confused or assume that they don’t have what it takes to be a leader because they don’t fit into the rigid social norms of how we usually define leadership.
When most people think of positions of leadership, I think the most classic example that comes to mind is being on the executive board of a student organization. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to undermine this experience in any way, because I do think it can be a great way to develop those leadership qualities.
Positions in clubs are a great place to start. However, there is so much more out there to explore!
How about that hobby or passion project that you took a leap of faith to pursue? Or all those times you took charge when working on a group project? Maybe those hours you spent volunteering with a local organization or being a peer-mentor to other students?
These are all great alternatives/additions to that “classic” leadership example that I mentioned earlier. Ultimately, it all comes down to identifying the areas that you are interested in and most passionate about, and taking strides to show your long-lasting commitment to learning, growing, and providing meaningful benefits to others through those activities.
I also want to mention that I feel like when potential employers ask about leadership experience, there is an automatic assumption that you need to respond by telling them about the classic example.
However, I think it is equally as beneficial to tell them about a time where you overcame a challenge or helped others in a way that helped you to refine some of the qualities that are necessary for being a strong leader.
Being able to show someone how you developed a certain skill is meaningful because it means that you have achieved a certain amount of awareness for it to be able to, most likely, replicate the utilization of that skill in a completely different situation, say, on the job.
Throughout my high school and college years, I feel like I heard the word “leadership” tossed around constantly by my teachers, my peers, and, perhaps most often, by potential employers.
When I was in high school and preparing to apply for college, I definitely brought more attention to the more traditional acts of leadership that I had taken part in. On my college applications, I highlighted the fact that I was the co-president of a volunteering club called INTERACT, and the president of my school’s Amnesty International club, which spearheaded activism and social justice campaigns in my community.
What I also should have emphasized, however, was the fact that I also spent my summers as a sleepaway counselor, where it was my job to teach tennis to girls ages 6-15 during the day, and to take care of a group of crazy 8-year olds by night (both of which required me to develop my patience, communication skills, creativity, and adaptability.
Looking back, that experience shows as much, if not more, leadership qualities as my more traditional leadership experiences.
Fast forward to college. I still pursued leadership positions that put me on the executive board of several student organizations (I was the treasurer of my sorority and a project director for a business consulting club).
However, I also put equal emphasis on taking on challenges that helped me to develop the skills that are crucial to being a leader in other ways.
When I was applying for summer internships, and, further down the line, full-time jobs, I incorporated all of these various leadership experiences into my answer when responding to that classic “So, tell me about a time when you were a leader” question.
I hope that at this point, you are catching my drift when it comes to all things leadership! To sum everything up into just a few sentences...
I hope that this post has inspired you to think outside the box in terms of what a leader looks like. HINT: This is me telling you to get on out there, pursue your interests and work on building those skills. You’ll be amazed at the outcomes!