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The Deterioration of an American Ideal
Our very future hinges upon it. It is the source of unparalleled stress amongst college-bound students both within and beyond the realm of Fremd High School. And, indeed, it is a quality that is valued above almost all else in our society. Leadership, in the eyes of the American public, symbolizes the sound judgment, effervescent enthusiasm, and contagious inspiration that characterizes the most influential people of our time. We are quick to idolize our leaders for their uncommon ability to rise above the masses and develop their potential to the utmost. It only serves to follow, therefore, that the much sought-after title of “leader” is reserved exclusively for the most deserving contributors to our society, and very few exemplify true leadership.
This is an admirable ideology, to be sure. One can’t help but revel in the concept of a society in which those exceptional individuals who rightfully earned their success are recognized, while the undeserving remain nameless and undistinguished. That does not make this scenario a reality, however. We may be invariably loathe to admit it, but our underlying philosophy regarding what constitutes a “leader” couldn’t be more different. In fact, the very definition of this fundamental American ideal has been distorted to meet our convenience. But is it too late to restore this dying term to its former glory?
In a survey of fifty thousand high school seniors, sponsored by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council in 2008, an astounding 93.4% of students described themselves as “active leaders” within their community, and 98.6% cited leadership as a critical component of their college applications. With such lofty expectations of our leaders, it seems a bit unlikely that more than forty-five thousand students fit the bill. Is it conceivable that we could really be producing so many outstanding students? Admissions officer Erik Oschner of Columbia University says the answer is no.
“With more high school students applying to colleges every year, colleges are putting more and more pressure on these kids. If they want to get into a good school, they have to be the cream of the crop, and leadership positions are what separates them from everybody else. But the problem is that the kids have caught on, and now they all overstate their experience in leadership.”
The emphasis that both colleges and employers place on what are referred to as “leadership” roles has sparked a chain reaction that has changed our very definition of the word. No longer are leaders considered the few extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, but rather the forward-thinking ordinary amongst... well, everybody else. Society has, in essence, contorted the definition of “leadership” into something that can be exchanged for a few hours time - for instance, counseling a summer camp or coaching a soccer team - and used to buy into a club, a college, or a job. “Leadership” has come to encompass the most mundane and lackluster of accomplishments, and this loosened interpretation and casual use of the term, whether for acceptance into a club or an impressive resumé, has stripped the word of its previous significance.
Just how detrimental is the prevalence of this new, lesser degree of “leadership” though? Despite the considerable “dumbing down” of what constitutes leadership, these small acts of authoritative action are generally not seen as harmful to our societal well-being. After all, obtaining more experience in cooperating with people, doing more in the interests of others, and learning to act on our own initiative are undeniably valuable life skills. As Illinois small business owner Kathie Hessler argues, “When I hire people, I look for people that will do the work without me getting on their back. I want people with some experience with being a leader - I want somebody who I can rely on to get the job done.” Clearly there are benefits to devoting time to the development of leadership, or more accurately, managerial, skills. The problem arises, however, not in the development of these skills, but rather the attitude that accompanies their acquisition.
In a world where the leadership frenzy has taken hold of our true ideals, our beliefs about what is important to society have become warped. Dr. Don Schommer, a sociology professor at Emory University, warns that “these kids know that in order to be competitive, they’ve got to have those leadership roles.” Essentially, leadership is a requirement, and it must be fulfilled. This fosters the same mentality as would any household chore: boredom, distaste, and resentment. What was once the single most revered American ideal has been reduced to a particularly elusive and burdensome prerequisite to future success. This is epitomized by Schaumburg High School senior Corinne Heberling, who says that “I guess I’ll have to get some leadership hours in if I plan on going to college.”
“Students in today’s society are fighting for positions that bear no importance to them, positions that require a forced exertion of time and effort,” explains Schommer. “When they spend their time half-heartedly supporting a cause they don’t believe in, they lose their passion, their drive to become great, successful, innovative people in a field that interests them. All these talents are going to waste.”
And indeed, it does seem that we have watched the search for true knowledge fade into the search for acceptance. Want to be a member of National Honor Society? That’ll be twenty leadership hours. You want to get into a good school? According to data from the College Board, at more than 85% of colleges in the United States, leadership roles are one of the primary considerations in the admissions process. We have been degraded from thinking, ambitious humans with a genuine thirst for knowledge to form-filling, resumé building machines.
Ultimately, the decision is ours. Will we extricate ourselves from the undulating gray sea of nameless mediocrity and claim our roles as legitimate leaders of our peers? Or will we settle for the meaningless “leadership” positions that fill our resumés, and remain satisfied with a life of obscurity? Will we choose to devote ourselves with determination and dedication to a field that genuinely interests us, from which we may succeed and become bona fide leaders in our profession? Or will we divide our time amongst various managerial positions that have little actual importance to us?
Although the term “leadership” has become a ragged, one-size-fits-all boot that will encompass the actions of anybody in order to impress colleges or employers, we must actively search to find the sparkling glass slipper that is unique to our passions, that can enable us to shine to our fullest potential, that can bring out the best in all of us. And that is how we may learn the art of true leadership, the lost American ideal.
***** All people, quotes, statistics, sources, data, and facts were made up. But that does not diminish the underlying truth that they express.