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on Leading the Next Generation


The Unintended Consequence of an Overwhelmed Student

I want to offer you a case study. Jenny (not her real name) was a smart student who made good grades and seemed to be skillful with both people and projects. She was a planner and appeared to be the perfect student for a leadership position. Jenny had all the qualities we look for in a potential leader.

photo credit: 18 via photopin (license)

photo credit: 18 via photopin (license)

Sadly, when she was challenged by a faculty representative to chair a campus club, she began to transform into a different person. Her attitude went south; she grew short-tempered with people; she began dropping balls on her job and withholding beneficial information from her colleagues. Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Hyde.

The Paradox Student Leaders Face

Here’s a paradox we face when challenging students to assume a leadership role on campus. By definition, assuming a leadership responsibility means acquiring more work, and, consequently, fewer margins in a student’s life. If she wasn’t already overwhelmed, the odds say she will be soon. According to the American College Health Association, 94 percent of university students say the number one word they use to describe their life is the word overwhelmed.

Consider this probable situation.

When I’m overwhelmed, I shift into survival mode. This can cause me to feel like a victim. Perhaps I’m a victim of an unfair system; a victim of too many demands put on me; or a victim of poor leadership. When I play the victim card, inevitably I’m preoccupied with myself:

  • I’m consumed by my own needs, not the needs of others.
  • I focus on my rights rather than my responsibility to others.
  • I acquire a “me vs. them” mentality, which can depress me.
  • I am purely a consumer, not a contributor, to a team or organization.
  • I become well versed at making excuses or defending my own bias.
  • I can progress toward hopelessness if I see no solutions in front of me.
  • I feel entitled to special attention or help because life’s been unfair.

In his book Social Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman reminds us:

People on busy city streets worldwide are less likely to notice, greet, or offer help to someone else because of what has been termed the “urban trance.” Sociologists have proposed that we tend to fall into this self-absorbed state on crowded streets, if only to gird against stimulus overloaded from the swirl around us. Inevitably, the strategy requires a trade-off: we shut out the compelling needs of those around us along with the mere distractions. As a poet put it, we confront the “noise of the street dazed and deafened.”

The key, then, is to enable students to grow their capacity to serve while practicing self-care. We must equip them to focus on others without living in denial, to see the big picture and not resort to excusing themselves from commitments because they’re “busy.” The fact is: humans are not rational beings, we are rationalizing beings.

Six Steps We Can Take to Prevent Them From Feeling Overwhelmed

  1. Help them simplify their calendar.

Students—especially freshmen—get caught in the FOMO Trap (Fear Of Missing Out). So they sign up for everything. They become a “flood,” not a “river,” to quote one of our Habitudes®. They’ve got to say “no” in order to flow. “No” is like the banks of a river.

  1. Teach them to eliminate extra or unnecessary activities. (To say no)

I suggest you help them list their “have to do’s” and their “want to do’s.” Then, help them separate the two. Successful people learn to say “no” and defer unnecessary demands to other people with solutions. They will either organize or agonize.

  1. Equip them to grow resilience by becoming a problem-solver.

Arrange experiences that can develop inward resilience, innovation and delayed gratification. These are the qualities of a problem solver. Climbing a tree and balancing on a beam can dramatically improve cognitive skills, according to a recent study.

  1. Enable them to focus on the most productive and rewarding priorities.

You’ve probably heard student quote the phrase YOLO (You Only Live Once). This means they’ll want to seize every fun opportunity, party, try-out, social gathering, etc. Work with them to identify top concerns. This issue is not prioritizing the schedule but scheduling the priorities.

  1. Give them some historical perspective when they feel alone.

When they feel they just can’t do it all, sometimes the most helpful conversation you can have is to offer some perspective. Millions of students have gone before them and felt like they can’t do it—but they did. Remind them they’re part of a long history of busy students.

  1. Ease them into heavier responsibilities over time.

Adam Kotsko reveals the problem we’ve created: “We ask 18-year olds to make huge decisions about their career and financial future, when a month ago they had to ask to go to the bathroom.” I believe adults must begin giving responsibilities that matter much earlier to students and mentor them through the process.


  1. Deanna Slamans on August 21, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Very profound! I needed this when I was a student leader!

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The Unintended Consequence of an Overwhelmed Student