I think this is such an interesting discussion topic. Before jumping in, I think it’s important to consider how we define leaders. Think about it for a second. The word “leader” carries a variety of definitions or characteristics. In its simplest form, the definition of a leader is a person who leads or commands a group, but when I think of my interpretation of the word, I find it’s meaning to have great depth beyond the ability to engage followers. So how do YOU define a leader? Are you a leader by your definition or your list of leadership characteristics? I have always considered a leader to be someone who inspires others to take action or someone who serves as a common voice for a group of people. I don’t think I necessarily view leaders as the folks with the most power, the loudest voice, or the person in charge of the group. When I’m in a group setting, I listen to the people around me. The voices that inspire me to do something are the people I consider to demonstrate leadership. I think the most important piece of my definition is “to do something” because I’m inspired every day by people, but unless that inspiration is translated into something actionable (to be a better person, to view an issue through a different lens, or to physically do something), is it really effective leadership?
Leadership during your degree program might come naturally or take a little extra effort. I know your priority is academics or research, but there are several ways to demonstrate leadership through those settings. First, I think if you’re sitting in class and you have something to say or a thought to challenge the class… speak up! Your thoughts are important and your contribution to the discussion can make everyone in the room learn. Second, if an opportunity to co-mentor another student with your advisor or boss is available, I suggest taking it on. Mentoring other students (through TA roles, undergraduate work study, Magellan Scholars, or volunteers) is a great exercise in delegating tasks, communicating, and teaching others. Plus, this experience looks GREAT on a CV! Lastly, find the time to volunteer in some way, whether it’s serving on a committee that meets once a year or spending a few hours a week for a cause that inspires you. Every time you engage with other leaders, you’re adding to your skill set (and CV). Plus, if it’s something you’re interested in, it should be an enjoyable way to spend your time and break from your books! Read your emails even if you don’t think the subject applies to you. If there’s an upcoming 5K event, but you hate running, send the organizer an email and ask if they need volunteers to help out on the day of the event. Sometimes you can make your own leadership opportunities!
Last note: I think a question you should continuously ask yourself is, “What can I do?” Leadership is attainable on multiple levels. So ask this question and then take on a task (big or small) that’s needed to help push the cause towards the overall goal. If you walk into a room that has a designated leader, ask them this question. If you open up an email asking for students to help out for an hour, open your calendar and ask yourself, “Can I do this?” Contribute to the greater good in some way. To me, that’s leadership.
Alicia Dahl is a doctoral candidate in health promotion, education, and behavior in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. She serves on the Dean’s Student Advisory Council in the Arnold School.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.