Regular contributor, Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA.
Anyone in the academy already knows that if a letter of recommendation praises a student as a ‘hard worker,’ the subtext reads, ‘not very bright.’ High prestige scholarships put a high premium on leadership and service to others, but at some point in the transition from Gen X to Gen Y, service fell to a distant second place. Every student I meet seems to have attended some sort of leadership seminar, institute, or retreat and leads something. Most have founded an NGO. Scholarship administrators fume that while many have founded, few have achieved much of anything. They devote hours of their time chasing down projects present only in virtual reality. I think I can identify the problem.
Leadership, as currently defined, means decisiveness – read George Bush. No waffling work ethic allowed. Go with your gut. Check your brain at the door. I cannot remember who said the following, I believe it to have been a character on the West Wing. She dismissed the second President Adams as having been so over-educated that he could not form a consensus on whether or not to have eggs for breakfast. From my own political coming of age, I remember supporters of Ronald Reagan leveling the same charge at Jimmy Carter: thinks too much, decides too little. No one – supporters or detractors – ever accused Reagan or Bush II of working too hard or thinking too much.
If leadership exists in lieu of labor, and everyone under the age of thirty takes a leadership role in everything, who is left to labor? We find hundreds of nascent projects, grandly conceived, with no-one to conduct them. The would-be workers are too busy dreaming up their own projects. Leadership demands authority in the eyes of the many, and thus we have a generation of generals without armies to command.
No doubt, the work ethic sometimes produces its own negative impacts. Every college instructor meets students who spend lots of time working (taking notes, writing outlines, coming to office hours) but neglect the essential creative thinking required to infuse their actions with meaning and produce learning outcomes. These folks spend so much time ‘working at’ something that they never make an attempt to solve the problem before them.
Nonetheless, it would have been nice if the leaders at Lehman Brothers had paused from their incessant decisiveness to spend a few hours working on the accounts they held before they led efforts to cook the books. When managers(aka leaders) scorn the input of engineers, bridges fall down (remember Minnesota?). When they dismiss the concern of ‘quants,’ who claim the columns don’t compute, banks go bankrupt.
When the desire for excess whether money, square footage, or authority outstrips the skills to construct something to sell, inhabit, or lead, we find ourselves flailing about alone in a sea of our own surplus. Readers may remember the 1999 Dilbert volume Don’t Step in the Leadership. As a society, we failed to heed Scot Adam’s warning, and in September 2008 we realized the soles of our shoes were covered in ‘leadership.’
With everyone defined as a leader, we lay claim to leadership’s accouterments. We fell victim to the cardinal sin of the over-ambitious. We believed our own press. We thought we really deserved and thus could afford the houses and cars some anonymous worker would build. The McMansion constitutes the millennial leader’s natural habitat and the Lexus its car. We bought the symbols of our so-called success then discovered bricks without mortar and motors without brakes.
The tragedy stems not from the loss of shoddy houses and cars, but from the lack of respect for old fashioned labor that resulted in their creation. My father, an engineering professor, longs for the days when his students grew up fixing things. They understood how cars worked, because they kept their parents’ cars running. When teenagers’ first cars became new cars, our society forgot first how to fix them, then how to build them at all. Housing ‘starts’ not home repairs make the financial headlines. The leaders charge on ahead towards the new, with no thought to the crumbling foundations left behind.
Universities need to educate tomorrow’s leaders, but if they are to have anything or anyone worth leading, they need to start with four years of hard labor. Class of 2014, please learn first to build the machines, solve the equations, speak the languages, collect the data, probe the meanings, frame the arguments, and craft the phrases that create the world in which we live. Then, after you have labored and mastered the art or science you profess to love, go forth and lead with confidence that your work will endure and catch you if you fall.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.