Leadership: Every College’s Dream Attribute In An Applicant (Part 1 of 2)

It’s the number one characteristic that every college is looking for in an applicant. Were you a captain of a sports team? The president of a club? In effect, were you considered to be someone with talents that exceeded everyone else’s, or you took unselfish initiatives for a greater good that demonstrated some vaguely defined but charismatic predisposition called “leadership?” These are standard expectations from colleges they hope are met by the applicant. But what happens if those standards are not met?

In today’s admissions culture, the applicant will have a greater difficulty in being accepted when the standard can be  met by so many other applicants. So what is the remedy for the student who doesn’t meet this standard? Consider a new way of communicating with the admissions office. Which takes into account a new approach to the definition of leadership, which I demonstrate in my book, Why You’re Already A Leader.

Gently I am going to demolish the leadership stereotype that we have come to accept in our culture, which states that leadership is what a person does to influence others to think and act toward a specific goal, that leadership is a “take charge” personality type who is able to influence others to act in a way that fits the desired outcome of one individual or an organization. According to this definition, leadership is a quality that only a few of us possess, as demonstrated, for example, by one manager who oversees many employees. In other words, somebody is in charge of directing others in what to do.

The unfortunate side-effect of this definition leaves one to believe that we are merely followers, with little or no ability to influence others. That somehow leaders are made and developed instead of being born with the expectation that the inborn quality of leadership, like any other quality, can be developed to achieve something greater, or to serve a larger purpose, such as directing a large body of individuals to accomplish certain goals. My definition of leadership, by contrast, puts the horse before the cart.

Which now begs the question: What is leadership? And how can a 15-year-old high school student who doesn’t fit the standard stereotype come out looking like a leader?

In my book on leadership, I tell the story of a young girl who is giving water to dying men while they lay on bare ground during the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. This frail and naive young girl, who is so scared and anxious by the carnage that she is witnessing, can hardly speak to these grown men who are old enough to be her father. Because she is no doctor who can heal with his instruments, or a clergyman who can comfort with his words, all she does is take cups of water to men who are approaching death’s door. Even though she doesn’t know what to say to these men, what do you suppose is really going on in that moment where the water is flowing from the cup she is holding to their mouths?

She is taking these men across an emotional bridge of hope over which few of them can travel alone. These men can look up at her and think… “She’s my wife, my sister, my mother – taking care of me as she always has, and I’ve survived every sickness each time.”

The leadership lesson this girl teaches is simple: you can be a comfort to those in need by saying nothing. You do not need to give advice, or know how to give it. Like this teenager, all you have to do is listen, as she did when dying men were able say “Thank you” to her gift of water – a metaphor for hope and life. At the time this event took place, this little angel was only 15-years-old.

So how does my story of this teenager translate to a high school student interacting with a college admissions official?

First of all, let’s accept that leadership is not an acquired ability, but an inborn characteristic that makes us influence others to act or not to act, an ability that begs to be developed and improved for a greater purpose beyond the simple act of influencing. Which is what, for example, the Lincoln Leadership Institute does successfully with corporate executives who want to develop and expand the limitless dimensions of this innate ability.

How does any high school student influence an admissions officer to follow? With the influence of stimuli that forces the admissions officer to respond to the student’s influences (read: leadership). What kind of influences do I mean? Asking probing questions on the phone or in interviews; sending “thank you” notes after a college visit or after receiving an acceptance (or rejection) letter; writing a thoughtful essay that influences the admissions reader toward a positive impression; producing a video that only shows the interior of the home in which the student lives, thereby influencing the viewer to believe the student comes from a warm and nourishing environment; or engaging in only one activity either in or out of school that demonstrates the student’s passion for something – anything that demonstrates to the admissions officer (read: influences the reader) that the student can commit to something. Incidently, passion is the second if not the substitute characteristic colleges look for if the leadership standard is not met.

The entire admissions process – any relationship – is a leadership-followship phenomenon. The college requires certain criteria to be fulfilled, which is an act of leadership in itself. The student is influenced by the criteria to follow. In responding – following – the student is influencing the admission people to follow – to respond. Leadership is a fluid exercise in continuous motion in every moment we speak and act. It is stimulus-response and response-as-stimulus.

The admissions process is the student’s opportunity to influence more than the admissions officer, to lead more and to follow less. In my next blog, I will detail three ways among many in which any student can be a leader in the college admissions process without having engaged or fulfilled the stereotype. 
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9 Responses to “Leadership: Every College’s Dream Attribute In An Applicant (Part 1 of 2)”

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  4. Susie Watts Says:

    As a college admissions consultant, I do agree that leadership is an attribute that colleges like to see in an applicant. However, I think many schools are even more interested in students who pursue their “own thing” with passion. Colleges are no longer interested in well rounded students, but more importantly they want a well rounded college community. The more diversified a student’s interests and involvement, the better.

    College Direction
    Denver, Colorado

  5. Paul Hemphill Says:

    Passion is a keyword in admision offices when evidence of the leadership stereotype is lacking, and that’s the case with all colleges. The article mearly points out that leadership is a college’s DREAM attribute of an applicant. I meant nothing more.

  6. Suzanne Shaffer Says:

    Paul, I agree completely with the fact that colleges are looking for leaders. They may say otherwise, but leaders stand out. If they evidence of the leadership in some unconventional ways, as you describe, they will be more inclined to sit up an take notice. As you’ve previously pointed out, it’s a marketing game. And as Susie pointed out, colleges are looking passionate young people to populate their diverse college community. What better way to make a lasting impression than to show leadership in an unconventional way?

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  9. Charles Smyser Says:

    Paul: Thank you for your article and thoughts. The story you used about the girl at Gettysburg was a great example, and I agree with, as I interpret to be, the premise of your book – that we all find ourselves performing leadership roles throughout our lives regardless of our formal positions or titles.

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