What school failed to teach us: how to lead and follow

Even in Scrabble, someone must lead and someone must follow. Photo courtesy of Nick Fewings.


Let’s play a game. 

Put a finger down if you learned the following useless pieces of information in high school: the quadratic formula, that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell and what the green light in “The Great Gatsby” symbolizes. 

Now put a finger down if it would have been a better use of your time to learn how to do taxes, cook dinner, write a resume, budget, change a flat tire or locate distilled vinegar in the grocery store. 

You’re lying if you still have all five fingers up.

I’ve established in previous Adulting 101 articles that our education system lacks practical curriculums. But I’m not here to teach you those missing lessons. Today, I’m here to complain. 

There’s another critical skill set that should be taught in schools but isn’t and, unbeknownst to us, we are being personally victimized by its absence:


Admittedly, leadership is a skill learned through experience. Senior psychology major, Avery George, recognizes this fact poses some problems with our current educational structure.

“Leadership would definitely need to be something that’s taught through example,” George said. “If that means we need to change the way that classrooms work for certain topics, then I think that’s the change that needs to be taken.”

Leadership is a cyclical process in which individuals learn to lead by watching others lead. I’m a strong believer that this cycle is desperately and deeply flawed in our society; and, our youth witness poor leadership and develop poor leadership styles as a result.

At the root of it all, there are elements of leadership that can be taught. Communication skills, emotional intelligence, feedback acceptance, relationship-building, organization, empathy, critical thinking and team motivation are some crucial elements of effective leadership that could be taught in schools. Yet the only active leadership experiences many schools provide to every student are group projects and let’s be honest, one group member usually does all of the heavy lifting.

I hate to break it to you, but that isn’t leadership.

Our society needs to be taught how to lead, how to be led and how to identify good leaders. So if you feel a sense of responsibility over your own leadership journey, please take note of my suggestions.

Suggestion #1: Find mentors

One of the first steps to successful leadership is surrounding yourself with good examples of leadership: a series of mentors. Mentors take a step beyond the title of role model on top of being someone you can look up to, they act as a sounding board. These are individuals you can come to with questions, talk through problems with and rely on for help.

Maggie Baranick, first-year exploratory business major, reflected on a strong leader she identified in her life: her high school band director.

“I could trust him,” Baranick said. “I spent more time with him and could tell he cared about me not only as a student, but also as a person.”

Trust is the key word here. Trust may just be one of the most vital elements of effective leadership. One study found that 54% of employees have “very little trust,” “no trust” or only “some trust” in their bosses. Why is this the case when trust can easily be strengthened through practicing emotional intelligence, developing an empathetic mindset and fostering positive, relationship-centered communication?

The answer: we aren’t taught those skills in school; we’re just expected to pick them up in our everyday lives. Learning to develop trust requires having a trustworthy role model someone to emulate. If our schools won’t officially provide us with the proper education and resources, we have to seek out our own mentors.

Not just one, many. 

Throughout the course of your life, you may outgrow mentors, you may disagree with them and you may choose to blatantly disregard their advice. But no matter what, continue to learn from those wiser than yourself even if they’re younger or lower on the organizational hierarchy. 

Along the way, you may just serve as a mentor to someone else.

Suggestion #2: Define what leadership means to you

Start by knowing the difference between a leader by position what I like to call a manager and someone who acts with a leadership mindset, no matter their official title.

Craig Caldwell, interim dean of the Lacy School of Business, is also co-author of “The Catalyst Effect: 12 Skills and Behaviors to Boost Your Impact and Elevate Team Performance.” This book can serve as a resource for those hoping to strengthen their team’s performance. In an interview, Caldwell spoke about a common mistake made by those who are new to organizational structures.

“There is a tendency for people to equate leadership with position, title or being high on the [organizational] chart,” Caldwell said. “I think for a lot of folks starting out in their careers, they’re appropriately impatient but they might make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’ve got to wait until I get that title, that thing, that office, whatever … You don’t have to wait. You can thrive and grow where you’re planted. You can thrive in leadership tasks without the title.”

Power imbalances defined by hierarchical positions create a false sense of reliance — just because you expect someone to lead doesn’t mean they will. Embrace the position that you’re in and choose to attack each day with a leadership mindset. Be a resource for others, guide your peers and actively seek out constructive feedback. In addition, ask yourself if you’re being an effective follower, and thus, a leader for others.

Suggestion #3: Decide that leadership needs to change

My last suggestion is to cultivate leadership in your own life wherever possible. As the future leaders of our society, we need to have a sense of responsibility and urgency when it comes to the state of our leadership. If the system isn’t going to change for us, it’s our responsibility to fix it. 

Actively put yourself into positions of leadership, whether they be formal or informal roles. If leadership isn’t your style, do research on the art of followership; perhaps that will help mitigate the disheartening and unproductive polarization we experience in most sectors of everyday life.

When I say polarization, I’m referring to the polarization in politics, the workplace and any social or environmental issue that we experience in society today. I personally attribute part of the dogmatic perspectives that cause polarization in our society to poor leadership education. But I digress.

I encourage you to pay attention to the state of leadership in our society. Ask yourself if you’re happy with the quality of the leaders in your life. If you’re not, become one. In doing so, we can hope to nurture those that will one day become leaders.

So put a finger down if you agree that we need more empathy in the world, we need more mentors and most importantly we need better leaders.


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