Why Are American Colleges Obsessed With 'Leadership'?

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

USA Today Sports / Reuters

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.

By contrast, at my English alma mater, Oxford, the ideal student is not a leader but a lone wolf, something reinforced at every point in the undergraduate process. Tuition takes the form of one-on-one “tutorials” with professors. The admissions process consists of interview by mock-tutorial with one's prospective future tutors, who also make admissions decisions. Once on the course itself, students are assessed entirely on their capacity for independent research. There are no classroom grades but merely marks on end-of-course examinations, anonymously graded. “Leadership”, and the qualities it is meant to entail, hardly enters into the equation. What is valued is not the contribution I make “to the world” at large, nor even the contribution I make to the life of the campus or to my fellow students. Rather, it’s the quality of the work I do on the course (which is to say, the level of my marks) and, as I make my way towards a doctorate, the contribution I make to my tiny, somewhat esoteric field.

Yet such insularity seems at odds with the rhetoric of the American educational institution. To be a “lone wolf,” to simply “go home and do their homework,” is to neglect, in some sense, a vital component of the educational experience. Harward and Sternberg alike stress the importance of “impact.” A desirable student is expected to do more than merely learn effectively, to further the transmission of knowledge from professor to student. They're expected to go further: to take an active role in the classroom, as Harward notes, “contributing ideas that sparked discussion or encouraging a quieter member of the class to offer up their thoughts.”

It would be a stretch to accuse several of America's best educational institutions of anti-intellectualism. But the implicit message behind the rhetoric of leadership in the American college admissions is that intellectualism alone is not enough, even for an academic institution. Simply learning for learning's sake is not enough. In this paradigm, there is something suspect—even selfish—about a “lone wolf” prospective student that stores up knowledge, like a dragon hoarding treasure. For all that is made of the American tradition of “rugged individualism,” American culture is less welcoming to those who neither lead nor follow but simply opt out altogether.

There is much to be said for the benefits of valuing this kind of leadership among students. A case can be made that the pure-academics approach of many continental and European universities, which encourages and rewards independence, also fosters a degree of isolation. Students are not encouraged, at any institutional level to collaborate, to gain managerial skills, to learn to follow or lead. And the valuation and fostering of leadership can be especially vital for groups of people who have not historically had the opportunity so to do – many women's colleges, for example, highlight the value of seeing women in leadership positions on campus.

But it's worth investigating the assumption that to be a “good leader” and to be a “desirable student” are the same thing. In valorizing “leadership” as a quality, we risk overlooking other—less obvious—qualities, something Harward concedes could use more discussion. “We do need good followers, and I think that aspect of leadership is something that we should talk about more,” she says. “What good is any leader if they alienate those around them or don't empower them to lead themselves? And does the focus on leadership imply that a student who embraces the life of the mind and a specific intellectual interest to the fullest isn't leading in some equally compelling way?” Certainly, it's worth asking if assumptions about “leadership,” culturally-specific and quintessentially American as they are, penalize candidates from different cultural backgrounds, where leadership—particularly among adolescents—might take different forms, or be discouraged altogether.

College admissions has come a long way in recognizing how candidates from different backgrounds and different levels of opportunity might present themselves differently. At its best, the holistic admissions process allows admissions officers to assess test scores and grades in context. But so too it’s worth looking at the context of the personal qualities admissions officers value. Do we need a graduating class full of leaders? Or should schools actively seek out diversity in interpersonal approaches—as they do in everything else?