As an extrovert with an introverted spouse, child, and students, I was deeply moved by Susan Cain’s book Quiet. And as an independent school teacher and doctoral student researching how adolescent girls define and experience leadership, I was intrigued by Cain’s March 2017 New York Times article, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.”
I agree with many of Cain’s ideas, especially the notion that “college admissions has emptied leadership of its meaning.” Rather than allow our students to falsely categorize themselves as either “leaders” or “followers,” educators should be working to redefine the notion of what it is to be a leader in the first place.
I teach at Baltimore’s Roland Park Country School (RPCS), an all-girls independent school not far from St. Paul’s School for Girls. St. Paul’s head of school Penny Bach Evins is right that “the doers and thinkers in our schools are not always in front leading.” But that doesn’t mean they can’t play a leadership role in the community.
They might be less visible, but I see my introverted students lead every day, whether they’re backstage running a theatrical production or in an elementary classroom doing peer education. These students are leaders even if they’re not alphas or type A’s, and we should recognize them as such.
Cain is right that all communities need followers—people who are called to service over status. Yet servant leadership, which is often not accompanied by a title, is one of the greatest forms of leadership one can practice. If this is the type of leader elite colleges seek, then they are on the mark. And if students are misunderstanding what it means to be a leader, then it is our job as teachers to clarify the concept. I often tell the student leaders I work with that leadership is 90 percent grunt work and 10 percent glamour.
Instead of making students change who they are, we should identify ways all students can use their talents and passions to contribute to school life. For example, our English department chair created a perfect leadership opportunity for our bibliophiles: She formed a student summer reading committee to lead the All School Read project. The group of girls met to discuss their favorite books, created a list of their top three, and presented the titles to the school community (including book trailers they produced themselves). Then the student body voted on what book we would read as a community that summer. Their leadership was rooted in passion and service.
As a teacher of girls, I consider it one of my greatest responsibilities to teach all my students that they can be leaders and that they need to look for the right opportunity and context to contribute. We also talk about the importance of being a good follower and how we all move in and out of these two roles several times a day. Our school mission compels us to “help students learn to lead and to follow, to take risks and to accept responsibilities, to grow from their mistakes and to find fulfillment in sincere effort.”
Cain suggests colleges should stop looking for “leadership skills” in students but rather “excellence, passion, and a desire to contribute beyond the self.” I agree that colleges should focus on the latter qualities, but I cannot stop using the word leadership with my students. As young women growing up in a world that has not always embraced female leaders, it is critical for my students to be able to identify themselves as leaders no matter their personality or disposition. Doing so will help them overcome whatever adversity or prejudice they may encounter in the future.
I recently took my students to a lecture on leadership given by Rhodes scholar and Baltimore Corps founder and CEO Fagan Harris. After the lecture, I asked one of the girls what she learned about leadership. She said, “We learned that it is a privilege to go to an independent school like RPCS and that after we graduate we have to use our education to help those who are not as privileged. Fagan could have gone anywhere, but he came back to Baltimore. We have to follow his example and take care of our city.”
Her definition of leadership couldn’t be more right.
Kelsey Twist Schroeder is a teacher at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, Maryland, faculty member at the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute, and doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania.