Opinion: Calvin should define expectations for ‘leaders’

Opinion: Calvin should define expectations for ‘leaders’

At Calvin College, the word “leader” is applied to any student in a position related to residence life and anyone who heads a student org, but there is little room in this definition for students who lead in other ways. Students in leadership positions receive training, mentorship and other benefits to help them lead. However, for students who don’t fit the requirements to be a resident assistant or a student org president, there are very few options for leadership development available.

During my sophomore year, a full two-thirds of the sophomores on my floor held a leadership position. Yet while we may have been role models, we may have been resources, we certainly were event planners, calling us leaders was stretching the definition. We were student leaders in the sense that we were students who were in leadership positions, but not in the sense that we had any student followers.

Leadership development, when it happens at Calvin, is relegated to different offices that serve different functions on campus. This is not to say that good work in leadership development is not being done on our campus — only to say that Calvin as an institution has neither a formal definition, nor common vision of what that development should look like. I think this is a problem. Without a common definition of leadership, there can be little common improvement.

As I’ve had conversations with the people who are most involved with student leaders at Calvin, the lack of a common definition of leadership has become clear.

“We use the word “leadership” really loosely here,” J.B. Britton, associate dean for student development, noted. “Are [residence life or student org positions] really leadership positions? No, not really. They’re volunteer positions,” he said.

Leadership is about more than just volunteering. A leader, I think it’s fair to say, should be responsible and be held accountable. Leaders should make decisions and form opinions. At Calvin, most leaders do not make decisions. A friend who leads a student org told me her biggest choice all semester was whether to buy candy or snacks for their open house night.

Neither do all Calvin students in leadership positions shape their culture. While some RAs are wonderful role-models, others can fulfill all their required duties and still exist completely outside of the culture of their floors. They can be effective enforcers of rules and an adequate facilitators of meetings and events, yet completely fail to guide the students on their floors or to be someone that students want to follow.

I asked every staff member I spoke with to point out students they identified as leaders. Perhaps if they could not define what leadership was, they could identify who. Most individuals referred to formal positions — RAs and members of the CLC (sophomore leaders in the dorms), students paid to lead orientation, or captains of sports teams. Others however, kept extending the list: tour guides were leaders, as were “maintenance workers with good attitudes.” I got the sense that some define leadership as anyone worth emulating in any sense. With such a broad definition, however, how does the term “leadership” retain any meaning at all?

“It takes a particular type of person to do orientation,” said J.B. Britton. “We do some good leadership development with them, but I’m limited to the extent that the position attracts certain people. We are missing out on a group of students who have the potential to be leaders.”

Introverted students, international students and AHANA students are all underrepresented in student leadership positions. Without formal training of how to identify and promote leaders, staff in charge of hiring choose students who seem qualified to them. I recognized this first when I worked in Calvin’s dining halls and was promoted to student manager in front of other international students who had worked there longer than I.

This cannot be because North Americans are better leaders than international students. From student senators to worship leaders, there are plenty examples of strong international student leaders on Calvin’s campus that show this isn’t true. If it isn’t a lack of strong leaders among international students, then, it may simply be that the individuals making the hiring decisions are not trained to see the kinds of leadership these students offer.

Defining leadership is difficult, which may be why Calvin is not interested in pursuing a formal definition. But until Calvin develops, if not a standard definition of leadership, at least a common mission for its promotion, its successes can be neither evaluated nor improved.

Someday I hope to see leaders shape minds and not just the floor date carpool lineup. I hope to see leaders identified not by their adherence to a personality type, but by their wisdom or responsibility or creativity. I hope to see everyone have the same access to mentorship, training and leadership resources that residence hall leaders and student organization leaders do.

Maybe then, at Calvin, student leaders will actually be the ones who lead.