Why Are American Colleges Obsessed With 'Leadership'?

What's wrong with being a follower? Or a lone wolf?

Earlier this month, more than 700,000 students submitted the Common Application for college admissions. They sent along academic transcripts and SAT scores, along with attestations of athletic or artistic success and—largely uniform—bodies of evidence speaking to more nebulously-defined characteristics: qualities like—to quote the Harvard admissions website—“maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure.”

Why are American colleges so interested in leadership? On the Harvard admissions website quoted above, leadership is listed third: just after two more self-evident qualities. So too the Yale website, which quotes former Yale president Kingman Brewster's assessment that “We have to make the hunchy judgment as to whether or not with Yale’s help the candidate is likely to be a leader in whatever he [or she] ends up doing.” Our goals remain the same today” before going on to stress that “We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.”

The language of Princeton dean Janet Lavin Rapeleye in The New York Times is strikingly similar: “We look for qualities that will help [students] become leaders in their fields and in their communities.” (So too Princeton's admissions website, which lists leadership prominently in its section on extracurriculars: “We look for students who make a difference in their schools and communities, so tell us about your leadership activities, interests, special skills and other extracurricular involvements.”) In his study The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg describes how the admissions officers at Wesleyan scored the “personal” section of an applicant's portfolio: “A 9 [out of 9] at Wesleyan...someone 'sure to “have significant impact on campus in leadership roles”; a 7 or 6 would be assigned to someone who was “likely to be a leader in some areas, contributor to many.”

Leadership alone rarely makes or breaks an application, says Emmi Harward, director of college counseling at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, California and the Executive Director of the Association College Counselors in Independent Schools. But, she says, “Not only does leadership distinguish a student in a competitive applicant pool from other students ([compare] a student body president to someone who has spent four years just going home and doing their homework) but also serves to foreshadow the impact the student could make on the college/university campus, and the potential impact they could make once they graduate.” 

It's possible, of course, to understand “leadership,” as conceived in the college admissions process, as a broad church of qualities: encompassing a whole host of attributes desirable in bright, motivated teenagers. But its rhetorical prevalence bears investigating. The tacit assumption is that leadership, like “maturity” or “concern for others,” needs no qualification or explanation; it is not only de facto desirable, but indeed essential. To be a “contributor,” to use Wesleyan's parlance, to a chess club is to be merely average; to be president of that chess club, by contrast, is to display some intangible merit.

But such an assumption is hardly universal. To be a natural leader, after all, (or even, to use Harvard's list of desirable qualities, a “self-confident leader”), is to eschew other potential roles: that of a “natural follower,” a “natural team player,” a “natural lone wolf.” And each of these, in other cultural contexts, might be seen as equally, if not more desirable. As Lan Liu, author of Beyond the American Model, puts it in a piece for the Harvard Business Review, “Leadership is culture-specific. Unfortunately, this theme has been unduly overshadowed by the bias, which is often an American one, toward the pursuit of a universal model of leadership.”

Rather, there is something quintessentially American about the system advocated by former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University Robert J. Sternberg in his book College Admissions for the 21st Century: a system in which “students should be admitted to college on the basis of their potential for future leadership and active citizenship, at whatever level of society.” While Sternberg makes sure to tell us that he defines leadership “not in the sense of achieving a level of authority, but rather as making a positive, meaningful, and hopefully enduring difference to the world at some level,” his assumption is that those worthy of admission at elite colleges are not simply good scholars, or even good workers, but rather those who will take initiative, those who will be pioneers in their fields, those who will—implicitly—manage those others who are not.

It is no surprise that Sternberg's book often runs into the language of business: he writes of how “talking to a high-level executive at a major investment bank, I mentioned our desire to enhance admissions at Tufts University. His response....was that tests like the SAT and the ACT, as well as college grades, predicted quite well who would be good analysts...What they did not predict as well was who would be able to take the next step—who would have the capacity to envision where various markets are going.” Sternberg then goes on to discuss his fund-raising efforts, which involved meeting “some of the most successful alumni of Tufts, as measured not only by their financial resources (and, hence, giving capacity) but also by the contributions they have made to society.” While Sternberg's caveats are doubtless made in good faith, the parameters he sets up implicitly reward “leadership” as conceived, quite straightforwardly, as managerial: artists and doctoral students in the humanities, no matter how “successful” in their fields, do not tend to congregate at fund-raising appeals.

William Deresiewicz, in The American Scholar, may be too cynical when he writes, “That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.” But it's certainly true that the kind of qualities we think about when we think about “leadership” do lend themselves naturally to hierarchical ascent.

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Tara Isabella Burton is a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, where she is working on a doctorate in theology and literature. She has written for Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Salonand The New Statesman.

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