The Reality of Student Leadership

Lulu Brase, Director of Student Life
Picture this—it’s a beautiful day in late August. The sun is shining, and the bustle of the school day is in full force. Throughout the morning you see small groups, two to three students transporting items out to the baseball field—speakers, corn hole, mini soccer goals. At lunch, you witness a larger group dividing up balloons and filling them up with water. There are two students directing others to head in various directions. At best, it seems to a distant observer as organized chaos, yet things seem to be getting done. Later, as balloons are filled, cars pull up to move buckets of balloons, and a handful of students carry buckets while others quickly run ahead to hold open the gates of the field. 2 pm hits, the field is empty of students and finally quiet. The stage is set—the water party afternoon awaits.

What can easily appear as a bunch of unorganized high schoolers running to and from, in reality, is student leadership at its finest. Yes, you read that correctly, student leadership. Not a formal course or a lesson taught by an adult, but instead, I challenge you to see leadership in action, agreed sometimes chaotic and frantic, yet clearly understood and defined by the students.

Although there are many vital elements, there are two highlights from the sunny August afternoon:

Part 1—Leadership has many forms.
If we look strictly at the example above, who are the leaders in the situation? The two individuals directing their peers during the water balloon creation? What about the small groups who pitched in during the morning to set up? What about the students who went to hold open the doors? I would argue they are all leaders. They are all pitching in, supporting each other, and working towards something that will positively impact others.
Tim Elmore poses an alternate definition for leadership that has stuck with me: “leadership is leveraging my influence for a worthwhile cause.” He frames leadership not by position or rank, but instead by the power it holds to create positive change. The idea of everyday leadership is key in developing effective leaders.

Part 2—Leadership takes collaboration
Too often it seems that leadership is viewed as a singular entity. Leadership has become synonymous with singular positions of power, such as bosses or presidents. A sole decision maker who has almost authoritarian rule.

As we reframed our student leadership in both Middle and Upper School, we focused in on this area tremendously. We searched for structures that promote the notion of collaboration and seeking opinions from all people. Ultimately, we settled on a Student Forum structured with an executive committee and grade level representatives. The structure promotes collaboration, even forces it at times, as there is no de-facto person-in-charge. It rewards group thinking and problem-solving. That sunny August afternoon is the result of that collaboration, many hands created light work. There wasn’t a singular individual running around frantic setting up. It was a group of students, a team, preparing a wonderful afternoon for their peers.

Ultimately these two notions—a non-traditional form of leadership and the power of collaboration—drive the teaching of leadership within student life. Whether it is in the classroom, in clubs and student forum or in the arts and athletic fields all students are challenged to be leaders daily. Leadership is learned and cultivated. It takes time and experience to develop as a leader. Just as on that August afternoon, students are continually provided opportunities to grow and develop their leadership skills both as formal leaders or daily leaders. It is through the experience of putting things into action that students learn the organizational and planning skills and develop important emotional intelligence to allow them to continue to better themselves and those around them.

When I looked out my office window that August afternoon, I couldn’t help but smile. Students putting into action their planning, collaborating, solving their own problems and leveraging their influence for positive change—or put another way, Being Leaders!
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The O’Neal School
3300 Airport Road
Southern Pines, NC 28387

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