One Surprising Reason Students Avoid Leadership Positions

Not finding enough students to volunteer for leadership positions? You’re not alone. Many schools are suffering from a dearth of students who’ll sign up to serve in a position. Sadly, I’ve found most students hesitate to open up and get honest about why they’re reluctant. Instead, they hide behind excuses like:

  • I’m too busy.
  • I’m not qualified.
  • I’m not really gifted.
  • I can’t do it. I’m not a leader.

Sometimes, these excuses are valid. Far too often, however, one of the chief reasons we’ve discovered as to why students actually avoid leadership is:


Shame is the feeling that we are not sufficient enough to be loved and to belong. We feel it when we believe we don’t measure up. We feel it when we remember our past, spotted with embarrassing behavior and poor decisions. It shapes our identity. The easiest way to deal with it—is to not face it or expect much again. So we turn down opportunities. Although it may sound silly, a large volume of students have so many secrets in their past, they feel that if they were ever discovered, no one would love or respect them. In other words: “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t want me. And I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to be a leader.”




One university dean told me he sat down with a male sophomore last year and challenged him to serve as a resident advisor in the dorm. The student continued to refuse until finally, the dean asked him why he avoided the challenge. The student got gut-level honest and admitted his shame. He did not feel worthy. His past was sure to catch up with him, and he’d fail at the job. Then, he’d be ridiculed, the butt of jokes on social media. It wouldn’t turn out well for him.

Five Responses We Can Offer

Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who both writes and speaks on this topic. Dr. Brown gave a Ted Talk in 2010 that has since been viewed over 20 million times. She spoke about the power of vulnerability, saying, “The only people who feel no shame are those who have no capacity for connection.” Outside of those few, the rest of us often hesitate when offered new challenges or opportunities. What if we fail? What if we don’t measure up? What if our past comes back to haunt us? We fear feeling even more ashamed.

Let me recommend five specific steps we can take to create an incubator for young leaders to open up, converse, and eventually risk volunteering to lead:


Dr. Brene Brown tells us, “Shame hates to have words wrapped around it. When you actually talk about your feelings of shame, suddenly it loses its grip on you.” We must model transparency by talking about our own weaknesses and flaws.


Next, we invite students into small, intimate, safe places for healthy conversations about life. These communities must dive deeper than superficial chats about sports or social media gossip. We must create space for genuine interaction.


In time, we go deep. Vulnerability is part of the antidote for shame. But empathy must be present. We foster vulnerability when we get vulnerable first, then display empathy for the deepest struggles of marginalized students. We may be surprised at how mainstream those struggles are.


Once a student survives the act of being vulnerable, they’re often open to someone else speaking into their life. We must express belief in them, that they have what it takes to conquer challenges and become a leader others would follow.


Shame is ultimately overcome when new habits are formed. It is one thing to be authentic about our flaws. It is another to overcome them. This occurs with friendly accountability, as friends help us break free from the slavery of bad habits or identity by helping us keep our commitments.

Shame usually results in one of the responses below:

  • Blame – We blame someone else for how badly we feel.
  • Games – We play social games to distract ourselves from our feelings.
  • Tame – We find a way to tame it by facing it honestly in a safe community.

Let’s help students get past their shame and become people of influence.

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One Surprising Reason Students Avoid Leadership Positions