Back when I (Ilana) was applying to colleges, one of the supplemental essays for a popular school asked the following question: “Who is someone you admire as a leader? Explain.”
I was seventeen, so I wrote about what I knew—the track-and-field team. I talked about my friend Al, who was the team captain. Al demonstrated great leadership all the time, I wrote. He led by example—he was a fast runner, a good sport, and could be counted on to oversee drills and exercises. At the same time, he made sure nobody was ever left behind during group workouts, going to the back of the pack to run beside little seventh graders when we were running through an unfamiliar neighborhood. He was quick to offer words of comfort after anyone had a disappointing race, and had a consistently positive outlook about everything, no matter how the team did at our meets. Above all, he always seemed to be having fun—and he made sure everyone else was, too.
But when I presented my essay to other students for peer review in our college essay workshop, I nearly got laughed out of the room. “Why are you writing this essay about Al? Is he submitting this for his college application?” asked one of them.
“This essay is supposed to be about someone who embodies real leadership—like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” another student remarked.
I took their criticisms to heart; embarrassed and chagrined (both by the fact that I had clearly missed the point of the prompt, and by the mortifying implication that maybe I had a secret CRUSH on Al…horrors!), I ripped up my essay and started from scratch. My new topic: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr…like absolutely every other college applicant answering this essay question. (Or at least, like, 80% of them.)
I’ve thought a lot about this incident in hindsight, and why I was cowed into writing a boring and predictable essay about one very pat, limited definition of leadership. With absolutely no shade thrown at Dr. King, or at my peers (who were themselves all of seventeen at the time, like me), we all suffered under a delusion that leadership looks exactly one way: a visionary status that transcends the existing values of an organization, forcing everyone to improve and evolve. We neglected not only different definitions of leadership, but more standard, common, day-to-day and practical ways it is embodied.
Fast forward nearly two decades. I was freelancing for a company, and the PM on the project to which I was assigned (who belonged to a partner company) clearly fancied himself a great leader. His LinkedIn profile was, bluntly, annoying. It read: “I LOVE CHANGE. I thrive on getting people to push their own boundaries, to change the way they think about everything…” Blah blah blah. To this day, I still refer to him as the “I LOVE CHANGE-guy,” having long forgotten his actual name.
I don’t think I would have constantly (privately) mocked his LinkedIn profile if everything about this guy hadn’t been so totally pretentious and eye-roll-inducing. In some way, I felt like the I LOVE CHANGE-guy would have belonged to the popular male counterpart group to the mean girls who teased me in middle school. What made it all particularly unpalatable was the fact that he exemplified none of the more tangible, down-to-earth, relevant qualities of leadership: He constantly dragged meetings out far longer than they needed to be, just so that he could pontificate on whatever topic he found interesting at the moment; he would assign all of his team members “extra-curricular” articles to read, presumably for our own erudition, because we would never discuss them or their implications (almost as if he just wanted to be assigning busy work); he would talk a lot about vision, and change, and breaking boundaries, but without any concrete guidance; he didn’t actually appear to know any one person on the team, or what anyone’s role was; and he seemed totally focused on how the project’s standing would impact his own personal image.
Eventually, the partner company to which our PM belonged decided to sunset the project, and my involvement (along with the rest of the team’s) was closed out. In a meeting to discuss this, the I LOVE CHANGE-guy spent an hour explaining to us how it wasn’t our work which had caused this, but internal changes—basically, “It’s not you, it’s me,” in corporate-speak. I literally sat there the entire time feeling like I was listening to someone break up with me whom I hadn’t been interested in to begin with, silently congratulating myself for getting him to pull the trigger first. After this over-wrought, hour-long Zoom meeting, my only question was whom I should be billing for that time spent.
The entire situation caused me to reflect a lot on what actual leadership looks like. Yes, we need visionaries who steer us to rethink how we do things and redefine what we are capable of. But, we also need a more down-to-earth type of leader (and frankly, we need quantitatively more of these leaders than the visionary types): We need the person who makes sure meetings stay purposeful and focused; who makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing, and how to do it; who helps out team members when they fall off-track or behind; who encourages, motivates, and supports employees when they need help; who remembers team-members’ names, and sees them as individuals; who ensures that everyone is having a positive experience, gets the job done, and gets to go home on time.
If I could say something to the 17-year-old Ilana, trying to write an essay that recognized the valuable role that her friend Al played on the track-and-field team, I would tell her to trust her instincts—that this type of leadership she had identified was vital and important, and ultimately far more relevant than visionary status to most people’s daily lives. And that Al probably appreciated the essay when he got wind of it, though like any actually good leader of teams, he was too humble to say so (and also probably equally awkward about that volatile potential crush situation.) And lastly, I’d tell her not to write about MLK, because everyone does that. Literally, everyone. Sorry for being so boring and unoriginal, Barnard College admissions committee, and my belated thanks for accepting me anyway.
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