Why Students Need Authentic Leaders

Last month, kids across America celebrated Halloween by wearing masks and walking around their communities, hoping to get treats for their great costumes. It’s a tradition almost all of us enjoyed during our childhood. But may I be blunt with you? Another version of this tradition happens everyday on your campus.

I just read a report on a North Carolina college student who went missing this year. When parents and school leaders investigated the campus without finding her, it prompted an eleven-day search, ultimately revealing she had committed suicide. Her body was found hanging from a tree in a wooded area.

As I dug deeper, I discovered that this student, like so many, was the victim of her own worldview. She decided to end her life because she couldn’t imagine attempting to endure the realities, the hardships, and the trauma of life on that campus.

Nobody knew it because she wore a mask.

In the end, she felt alone. She was like thousands of other students who somehow perceive they are going through struggles when everyone is just fine. They all had masks on. Yesterday, I wrote about students who share this life of quiet desperation and choose to end their life. Today, I want to talk about leaders who can guide students into a healthy view of life and reality.

I believe it begins with taking off our masks. Allow me to explain.

photo credit: Veiled via photopin (license)

photo credit: Veiled via photopin (license)

Penn Face and Duck Syndrome

Mental health is a growing concern at many universities, prompting task forces to discuss how to handle the disproportionate amount of students who struggle mentally and emotionally. What’s interesting is, students are aware of the façade they must maintain to hide their struggle. Often, they work hard to sustain the appearance of being “together.” To onlookers, their story seems perfect.

TIME magazine recently reported that social media superstar Essena O’Neill, “…announced that despite having more than half a million followers on Instagram, 200,000 on YouTube and Tumblr, and 60,000 on Snapchat, she is quitting social media for good. The 18-year-old Australian was living what seemed like a ‘perfect’ life, but she’s taking a stand against the ideals social media presents.”

There is a term used at the University of Pennsylvania called “Penn Face.” It describes the happy demeanor students feel they need to express, even when it’s fake. It describes students who seem to lead an almost perfect life, creating the illusion that they’re on top of the world. This causes other students to feel stressed, inadequate, and overwhelmed. While this term is unique to Penn, the problem is not. In 2003, Duke released a report explaining how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without labor. At Stanford, it’s called the “Duck Syndrome.” A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles. What a picture this paints of their invisible anguish.

These terms have one thing in common. Students look fine on the outside, but are in turmoil beneath the surface. It’s a split image: one you can see, and one that’s real.

The Value of Authentic Conversations

As leaders in their lives, we must model what it looks like to embrace hardship, to work, to fail yet be resilient, and most of all, to not hide our struggle. Somewhere along the way, students have gotten the idea that everyone is doing well… except them. That life is grand for all others, and their struggle is strange and unique.

The College Dean’s Advisory Board at Penn actually held a panel to dispel this notion. They wanted to shed light on the fact that everyone on campus, irrespective of their GPA, their leadership position, or however perfect their life may seem on social media, struggle with the same issues.

This may sound like a conclusion from Captain Obvious—but I assure you, today’s students need to be reminded of it for their emotional state. They have reached college age duped into poor thinking because adults haven’t been authentic with them. Parents often fail to level with their “special children” that life can be slow and disappointing for everyone, that the world may toss emotional “grenades” at them in the form of breakups, failing test scores, rejection by friends, car accidents, job dismissals and other situations. And many days, there is no trophy.

This is actually normal. It’s how life is for 95 percent of the world’s population. And in the midst of it all, we can still be fulfilled, even when things don’t go our way.

An Assignment for This Week

While we all say we want to be authentic and transparent about our lives, relatively few leaders are. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. We live in a society that is artificial, superficial, cosmetic and manufactured. Our students need us to get real with them—about our messy lives and their messy lives. So here’s an assignment:

  1. Identify an anxious student and find time to meet for coffee and conversation.
  1. Ask about their week or month. How are things going? Are they struggling?
  1. Lead the way in transparent disclosure by sharing your own challenges.
  1. Model what it looks like to remain steady, even when you don’t have answers.
  1. Discuss the reality of “split image.” (Wearing a façade, hiding what’s real.)
  1. Talk about the therapeutic benefits of authenticity and accountability.

Encourage them to find a friend, a faculty member, a coach or a colleague with whom they can confide. If possible, offer to be that person for them. Meet for the purpose of honest self-disclosure. Being authentic and holding each other accountable to face life’s hardships can be a lifesaver. I know this firsthand.

From this day onward, lets commit to be authentic leaders for them.

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Why Students Need Authentic Leaders