In your Monday article, “Leadership schmeadership,” you stress the overlooked importance of being a follower rather than buying into the notion of what you call “the age-old troupe [sic] of applications” — being a leader. However, it appears that your definition of what it means to be a leader may have some very key flaws.
By creating a dichotomy of leaders and followers, you ignore the complexity of human ability. Every great leader has, at one point, had to follow. I would go so far as to say that true leaders understand the necessity of being able to take direction, to surrender notions of ultimate authority and to value more logical systems of checks and balances. Aside from the mild indigestion I experience when I hear the term “Dear Supreme Leader,” I simply find the whole notion of absolute leadership in classroom environments to be unrealistic and vaguely fascistic.
The friction experienced by participants in group project environments is a product of arrogance rather than leadership. As previously mentioned, a true leader understands that simply trying to place himself or herself a cut above the rest of the members in the group sacrifices the integrity and quality of the project. Rather than pushing for a structure in which one leader should emerge in each group, everyone should be a leader in the sense that everyone should be able to independently accomplish some aspect of a greater project to its maximum ability. Some are leaders in presentational skills, others in managerial and organizational prowess, others in more creative aspects such as writing, and others excel in efficient research practice. Be it a presentation or the building of some literal or metaphorical bridge, understanding the necessity of asking for help and maximizing the strengths of others is what separates a leader from a tyrant.
Yet what surprised me most was your proposal that the ideal quality of a potential friend is being a follower, which is a criterion used only by dictators, cult leaders and Blair Waldorf. I personally choose my friends on the basis of their personalities and the potential to better myself as a person by knowing them. Call it corny, but I want to be a part of a collective rather than the head of a posse. I look to my friends to challenge my perspective and help me grow, not as a stack of vacuous shells upon which to ascend to Yertle the Turtle-dom.
I would not argue against the idea that perhaps there are archetypes of leaders and followers. However, the categories hinted at in your article indicate that leadership is synonymous with aggression and anything else is indicative of a “follower.” Furthermore, your assertion that leaders are often liabilities due to their propensity to deviate from the standard is more a misdirected indictment of the flaws in public education. From his behavior in elementary-level science courses, Albert Einstein was predicted to accomplish nothing and certainly fail as a scientist. I think we can agree that his inability to be a “diligent student,” as you phrase it, and tendency to “march to the beat of [his] own drum” was not exactly Einstein’s undoing. We can also add Florence Nightingale, Nikola Tesla and Mae Jemison to the list of deviants who became some of the greatest leaders in their respective fields.
The qualities that you assert will “relegate [these figures] to the social periphery” are the same that caused them to not simply follow directions and hide their light under a bushel. Moreover, I am sure that many students at Princeton can identify with the struggles of that pesky defect known as “leadership.” While not every student is going to graduate from Princeton with the ambition of being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or running for public office, I believe every Princeton graduate will be, in some way, a leader. It is what may have rendered us social pariahs in high school, made busy work feel like dental surgery and caused Princeton to appeal to us in the first place.
One of the implied goals of the Major Choices program, which presents students with a wealth of resources to make informed decisions about their academic paths at Princeton, is to redefine the notion of what a leader is. One does not need to assume a typical directorial role to be a leader; one can find ways of becoming leaders in the arts, humanities, academia and other pursuits not typically associated with stereotypical notions of leadership. Not being the first name on the masthead — or even being completely excluded from the masthead — does not instantaneously disqualify someone from being a leader. Instead, Major Choices seems to stress that regardless of field or position, every student is capable of being a leader.
By employing such qualities as fairness, ingenuity and grace under pressure, Princetonians can realize leadership divorced from the stereotype of the obnoxious know-it-all. True leaders understand the importance of following. And where can we look to foster this sort of individual, if not at Princeton?
Lauren Prastien is an anthropology major from Fair Lawn, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.