Leadership Lessons We Must Learn from College Students

Have you heard about what’s happening on some university campuses in America. Racial unrest continues to surface, even though it’s 2015.

I had just returned from speaking at an event in Missouri when we heard reports that University of Missouri football players refused to practice until their college president resigned. Why? They, along with other African-American students on campus, say they’ve experienced far too many racial attacks and racial slurs from fellow students, with no apparent action on the part of President Tim Wolfe. One graduate student staged a hunger strike, dozens of others held a sit-in, and 30 black football players wouldn’t play football until change occurred.

It would’ve been easy to pass this off as a small group of radical and vocal kids, except that Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel stood with them. He spoke of the solidarity between the coaching staff and these students. It was a showdown.

And on Monday, President Wolfe resigned in the wake of this unrest.

Wow. This is reminiscent of the 1960s. Of course, it would be one thing if this was an isolated incident. But it’s not.


photo credit: ¡Carlitos via photopin cc

A Groundswell of Racial Tension

Unfortunately, this University of Missouri case comes on the heels of two years of episodes of racial tension in Florida, Ferguson (just two hours away), Baltimore, New York, Charleston—and the list goes on. On school campuses today, we find:

  • Protests erupting on the Yale University campus after an email in late October warned students about racially sensitive Halloween costumes. This prompted a professor to complain that Yale had become a place of “censure and prohibition.” This set off a stir of controversy among students.
  • Students at Ithaca College in New York say President Tom Rochon has given insufficient responses to several allegedly racist incidents on campus. They circulated a petition asking for a vote of “confidence” or “no confidence” in their school administration.
  • At Berkeley High School in California, a freshman confessed to leaving racist messages invoking public lynching last week on a school computer. This sparked a massive student walkout on campus.

So what can we learn from this? Doubtless, there are complicated issues involved in every one of these locations. The last thing I want to do is offer a superficial solution. I do, however, think they remind us of some fundamental leadership lessons we’d do well to heed. I offer them below.

Leaders Must LEAP

Whenever change is needed, it’s often preceded by unrest among a constituency. In other words, sometimes a leader spots the need for change and growth, but often, the cry for improvement comes from the grassroots. When it does, I believe effective leaders LEAP. By this, I mean that leaders:

L – Listen to their followers sincerely.

E – Evaluate the situation objectively.

A – Act on the issue wisely.

P – Progress toward improvement visibly.

Followers need to see leaders listen.

Sometimes, driven leaders forget to listen. We are so impassioned by our own ideas, we fail to send the message that we empathize with those who follow us, that we have their best interests in mind. I’ve come to conclude as a leader (as well as a parent) that people do not have the innate need to get their own way—but they do have the innate need to be heard. 

Followers need to see leaders evaluate.

Followers need to see and sense their leader is carefully weighing out issues relevant to them. Angst and distrust occur when followers believe their leader is flippant about important issues. Trust expands when they see their leader meeting with involved parties, seeking wise counsel, and thoughtfully processing all sides. Leadership always operates on the basis of trust.

Followers need to see leaders act.

Let’s be honest. One reason American citizens are distrustful of so many politicians in Washington is due to inaction. We get the feeling there’s a lot of talk, but not much action. Followers instinctively look for leaders to align their words and deeds. They must see their leader actually doing something about their problems.

Followers need to see leaders make progress.

Everyone needs to feel like they’re making progress, moving forward. What other reason is there for leadership? We can all get stuck on our own. Leaders are supposed to get teams unstuck. Progress is the only true validation for leadership. For coaches, it’s winning games. For politicians, it’s solving problems. For managers, it’s empowering teams to perform. Even if it’s small, we need to see progress.

So whether you’re a coach, an employer, a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or a youth worker, be sure you’re sending the right signals to your students. Especially when trouble is brewing—you need to LEAP.

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Leadership Lessons We Must Learn from College Students