As I eavesdropped on the college admissions interview taking place at the next table over, I couldn’t help but laugh into my seasoned and cynical senior sleeve while listening to some of the Q and A. Having in my possession three and a half glorious years of a 21st century undergraduate education, I inwardly rolled my eyes at questions like: “What courses have you taken to prepare yourself for a Tufts education?” — as if high school seniors have any idea of what collegiate pedagogy is — and “Why Tufts? What made you want to apply?” — as though an 18-year-old applicant can hope to glean the heart and soul of a university campus through a series of pamphlets and webpages. There was one question, however, that really got me thinking: “What leadership qualities have you developed, and how will you use those as an undergraduate?”
Ah yes, the age-old troupe of applications, interviews and college essays across the country: “What will make you a good leader?” The more I work in groups and observe their dynamics, the more certain I am that the idea that everyone should be a leader is a misplaced ideal. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is a person’s following potential, not their leadership potential, that maps more closely with academic and social success.
The academic benefits of being a follower are significant. Those individuals with marked creativity and divergent thinking — some of the hallmarks of a good leader — sometimes find it difficult to fulfill the requirements outlined by their professor. Rather than simply following what they’re told by the syllabus or trying to predict what their professors want, leaders sometimes question the object of the assignment or take it in another direction. Naturally this doesn’t hold true for all leaders, but most tend to march to the beat of their own drums. In contrast, diligent students will follow, to the best of their ability, whatever is outlined by their instructor. This often results in work more closely related to what the instructor had intended, which some could argue is of a higher quality than that produced by more self-directed students.
The same can be seen in group projects. How often have we all been victims to that group of leaders, the one in which we must spend hours critiquing and debating the direction and form that our project will ultimately take? The most efficient and most productive academic groups that I have been involved in all have had one or two individuals with a strong idea of where the project is going. These individuals then delegate effectively to the other group members, who must necessarily be good followers, and the project is completed without incident.
Following is not just beneficial academically, but socially as well. Those who can’t follow properly — and I would freely admit to often having this problem — can find themselves relegated to the social periphery. We follow each other to the dining hall; we follow each other to the Street; we follow each other to plays and dance shows and hangouts. If we didn’t have strong following characteristics, we would miss out on many of the social experiences that we have here at school. Our ability to follow is what brings us together, odd as that might sound.
You as the reader can test my hypothesis this very morning. Think about all of your friends and decide how strong you think their leadership potential is. More often than not, I think, you’ll find that your friends constitute an exceedingly large range of leadership ability. If anything, you’ll find that many of your friends are followers. That’s probably why you became friends in the first place! Leadership really doesn’t count for much between friends. You don’t like your leader friends any more than your follower friends. Because friendship is so important when it comes to your college experience, it is strange to me that the ability to follow counts for so little in applications and admissions.
There are any number of reasons why our educational system operates under the paradigm that “every child is a leader.” The chief reason, in my opinion, is to raise the self-esteem of our youth and give them the feeling, however misplaced, that they are leader material. I encourage you as the reader to draw your own conclusions about why our leadership complex exists. In any case, rather than perpetuate the falsehood that everyone need be a leader, we should instead understand that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a follower.
We should do away with this erroneous concept that every child needs to be a leader. The best, most harmonious and most productive groups seem to arise from a specific ratio of leaders to followers where the latter outweighs the former. We need to remove the stigma that has developed around following and realize that it is one of the most essential and important academic and social qualities we college students possess.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.