Navigating the Path to Great Student Leadership

“Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vain

Time to rethink your position, understand why you came.”

I often recite these two lines from a poem I wrote on leadership when I speak to student leaders around the world. I share this quote to underscore two points. First, leadership is not for everyone. Though everyone can be a leader, leadership is a calling that few people answer and, therefore, it must be carefully considered. Second, leaders must always be thinking about why they chose to be a leader, and whether they still have the capacity or even the desire to lead. In today’s political climate, these two points are more important than ever for student leaders.

Donald Trump’s presidency has not only shaken up our system of government, but it has also had an impact on every aspect of our society, even schools. Some students feel that they have a leader in office who can speak for them in ways that President Obama could not (or didn’t). Others believe that President Trump’s rhetoric makes them less safe in school. It requires students to evaluate whether or not they are built for the task of leadership today.

I challenge student leaders to jump headfirst into whatever challenges their schools are facing. The example of America’s political climate is on the more extreme side of challenges student leaders may face in school, but there are a multitude of other challenges that students face, from cafeteria food and infrastructure to curriculum and school climate. Regardless of the issues, I advocate four simple steps that student leaders can implement to help them better navigate these issues. These four principles—give, release, overcome, and win—stem from my book G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! 10 Steps to Living Your Best Life. 

Give

First, students must review the quality and quantity of their giving. Student leaders cannot be self-absorbed and only concerned with the title of leadership as a résumé builder for their college applications. Their elected position (in many cases) means they must remember that they represent their constituents, even those who did not vote for them. To that end, encourage your student leaders to be giving of their attention to all students in their school. Emphasize that student leaders need to be able to do more listening than talking to really understand what is transpiring in their school, and they must be willing to give of their time to lead the effort toward effective change. As the old adage goes, we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in proportion.

National Student Leadership Week (NSLW)—which happens April 15–21 this year-provides an easy way to jump-start your group. As part of NSLW, student councils and chapters of NHS and NJHS are encouraged to plan a special project to show how student leaders positively impact the school and community. For ideas, browse the National Student Project Database, which offers thousands of project and activity ideas completed by Honor Society chapters and student councils. 

Release

Student leaders need to let go of any hatred (or even a simple bias) they may have toward certain groups. I study leadership across the globe, and I’ve examined the practices of leaders including corporate CEOs and national leaders. I have seen situations where someone becomes a CEO and actively works to undermine particular departments they simply do not like. I have seen situations where someone becomes president of a country and exacts revenge on the ethnic group they view as their oppressor. I encourage student leaders to practice forgiveness and inclusivity, similar to what former South African President Nelson Mandela did. Upon his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela went to visit the homes of his former prison guards to express forgiveness. 

Once students release negative biases, they can work toward a second step of “release”–releasing people around them who no longer represent where they want to go as a leader. I tell leaders that they are a direct reflection of their five closest friends. If their friends are racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, sexist, petty, passive-aggressive, or express other biases, chances are the leaders are as well. Student leaders must associate themselves with people who represent not where they are, but where they want to go. 

Also, especially in this world of social media, student leaders need to understand that they must be careful with their “friends” and what they post on social media because colleges and potential employers can view these sites to gain information about the student. An article titled “Social Media Trends in College Admissions: What to Know for 2017” on educational consultant site Ivywise.com shared results from a Kaplan Test Prep 2016 survey of nearly 400 college admissions officers across the U.S. It found that “37 percent of admission officers have found things online that could negatively affect an applicant-mostly illegal activity like underage drinking, other criminal offenses, or inappropriate posts or behavior.” As an alternative, “Keep your profiles clean and use them to highlight your activities and interests,” notes the article. 

Overcome

Student leaders must overcome their fears, as this feeling keeps people from thinking clearly. Students must be guided by their goals and their vision—not their anxieties. One cannot serve effectively if they are governed by worry or distress. Fear can keep students from even attempting to start a program because they’re concerned about what people will think.

Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said that fear simply means “False Evidence Appearing Real.” This means that most of the issues people worry about will not happen, so instead they should focus on working daily toward their goals. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But, conscience asks the question, is it right?” Student leaders must acknowledge the fear they may feel, but focus more on what is right. Leadership can be a daunting task, but it is a task worth pursuing if student leaders are truly interested in serving their communities.

Win

Student leaders must believe they will win. While this is easy to say and embrace in theory, students will likely need to be reminded that some of the changes they seek in their school may not occur during their tenure as a student leader. Remind students that at one point their school may not have allowed women or students of color, but people fought for the right to attend those schools—even though some fighters for equality never got that opportunity themselves. In this age of instant gratification, student leaders must practice patience; change does not happen overnight. Some Native American communities believe that they should consider how their actions will affect people in seven generations, and that’s the kind of mindset strong leaders should adopt. 

Grow!

At the end of the day, if students look at how they give, release, overcome, and win, they can become effective leaders for their school community. Encourage your students to use these four steps to evaluate their position in leadership; they will better understand the serious job they have as leaders in their school. Whether it is the National Honor Society or student council or any other form of leadership, it comes with the unwritten understanding that students realize the great responsibility of the leadership roles they have undertaken. 

As advisers, you can be the ones who help them along with this process. Your experiences as educators and leaders in your own environments can greatly aid students in their development. Consider taking your group to a conference (like a LEAD Conference) to get student leaders immersed in national discussions, and to help empower them to be strong leaders. I fully believe that with your guidance, our student leaders of today can continue on their path to the greatness that we know is inside of them. 


Omékongo Dibinga, PhD, is a motivational speaker, author, rapper, and professor of cross-cultural communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He conducts training for teachers as well as students on issues related to cultural competency, diversity, and leadership. 


Jump-Starting Leadership

The theme for the 2018 National Student Leadership Week (NSLW) is “Make Your Mark on the World: Dream. Lead. Serve.” The national office of NatStuCo, NHS, and NJHS has sponsored NSLW since 1972. This year, the national office is challenging student leaders to really take this theme to heart. Rather than reporting what they have been doing, the national office wants them to share what they want to do. What is their dream? Have your students pitch an idea for a great activity or event for your school or community, or share how they’d like to add a new twist to a traditional event. If their pitch grabs the judges’ attention and explains why this activity or event is needed or beneficial for your school or community, NHS, NJHS, and NatStuCo may help fund it! 

Several $250 micro-grants will be awarded to councils and chapters to assist in funding these projects, activities, events, and ideas. Create and share your pitch on social media with #OurDream18. Visit the NSLW webpages for more details and contest instructions: www.NatStuCo.org/nslw, www.nhs.us/nslw, or www.njhs.us/nslw

Need an Idea? Share an Idea.

The National Student Project Database