In August 2017, I remember sitting in the basement of my dad’s house as I received some pretty awesome news. Waiting to return to campus for the fall semester, I learned that I had been selected to serve alongside 61 accomplished students, both graduate and undergraduate, who were attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the nation within the White House Initiative on HBCUs. We were the White House HBCU Student Ambassadors for our universities. For me, I was not only the third student to be awarded this amazing honor for Alabama State University, but I was also adding this to my packed resume of previous and current leadership titles and positions, including two-term editor-in-chief of The Hornet Tribune newspaper, founding executive president of the University Programs and Activities Board, and president of the Pi Sigma Alpha National Political Science Honor Society ASU chapter.
But above the many leadership positions and opportunities I had taken on over more than 10 years since I was first selected to serve as freshman class president in high school, nothing was more important than being able to understand and exemplify the importance of purpose-driven leadership over position-focused leadership.
In my new book, To Those Who Believed: The Values and Leadership Lessons From the Heroes in My Life, where I honor five heroes who have shaped my personal values and leadership skills, I discuss the importance of leaders understanding the difference between leadership in purpose and leadership in position. A pastor, my student council adviser, a former mayor, my wife, and one surprise hero in my life all have two things in common: They all have served in places where they were leaders and were tasked with positions that required being the person in charge. However, the second and most important value they all share is that they realized the importance of purpose-driven leadership and not position-focused leadership.
One thing I learned through my journey as a leader after high school is valuing the importance of leadership centered around purpose-driven action—and not just holding a title. Throughout time, you will find that no matter where you go, there will always be those position-focused leaders. But what changes the world are leaders who are focused on being purposeful and making a difference. As advisers, you have a direct opportunity to show student leaders the power and impact of purpose-driven leadership.
In my book, I share several stories and memories of how my student council adviser, Jacqueline Staten, loved her position—not because of the position itself, but because of the purpose attached to it. For her, the position carried the purpose of going above and beyond the call of duty to invest in the lives of the next generation of leaders. For me, her investments, sacrifices, hard work, and commitment far beyond what was required of her as an adviser are things to which I can attribute much of my exposure and success. My adviser was not just trying to do the bare minimum or meet the requirements to which she was told to adhere. She was the adviser who did what needed to be done without ever needing to be told.
Making an Impact
Why? As leaders, we have a direct opportunity to make a powerful impact on the lives of those around us. Many times people are focused on doing the job well and meeting the requirements. And that is OK. However, there is a faction of people who are focused on exceeding the job and purposefully going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure they give their all to help someone become the best version of themselves.
As a leader outside of high school, I learned that the most important moments were not giving speeches, making policy, or even being the person who must delegate projects. Some of the most important and powerful moments of my leadership have been when I needed to act with purpose to impact change. Whether that means I am busy setting up for an event on campus or filling out a report when a student enters my office with a major concern and needs to vent, I am purposeful in being open and available.
Purpose-driven leadership is important because it emphasizes that it doesn’t just require a position or title for you to lead—it requires you to use the influence and impact you have and invest in someone else. So, think about it: You can be a neighbor, a sibling, a stranger on the street, or a janitor, and still have the power to be a purpose-driven leader. You can show someone the payoff of a strong work ethic, the power of genuinely going out of the way to learn about someone different from you, or the power of overcoming challenges and struggles. Even without holding some high and mighty position, every person can change the world around them because we each have the power to do small, kind acts of genuine respect, support, and care for one another.
For a leader committed to purpose-driven leadership, you are not eager about positions, though if you have one that is fine. What you are eager about is how you can utilize and operationalize the opportunities and availabilities where you are able to impact those around you who need it the most. Purpose-driven leaders lead and do things on purpose, keeping in mind those they are trying to impact. Help the next generation of leaders understand that every moment they have and every space they occupy—even without positions—provides them with the opportunity to be purposeful leaders, driven with a passion to change the world for those around them.
David L. Collier-King (formerly David L. King, Jr.) is a 2021 candidate for a master’s degree in public policy from Loyola University Chicago and an author, motivational speaker, and a 2020–21 City of Chicago Mayoral Fellow.