Leadership: It’s Not about Your Degree

The start of a new year means the start of a new journey with 23 undergraduate students at the small, liberal arts college where I teach.  It’s a day of great excitement for me, and considerable apprehension for my students.  For many of them, successful completion of my course means a sheepskin and a welcome to the working world with arms opened wide…..or so they believe.  It’s the naiveté of undergrads, an attitude that is simultaneously cute, admirable, and wonderfully inspiring.

At our first break, one of my students approached me for advice.

“How do I decide which degree is going to best prepare me to be a strong leader?” he asked.

This is a question I’ve heard not just from young college students, but equally frequently from corporate managers, directors, and even the occasional executive.  It’s a quandary rather ubiquitous throughout our society.  Unfortunately, it’s also a question without definitive answer, for several reasons:

  1. Leadership is not about knowledge – Sure, a base understanding of the building blocks of business (or public policy, if in the government sector) is necessary.  But some of the strongest leaders are those who know to surround themselves with the most knowledgable individuals in their industry.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the leader because you know the most.  Don’t fall prey to the “smartest one in the room” syndrome!
  2. Leadership is situational – Because every leadership challenge is unique, no amount of knowledge will necessarily suffice to “qualify” one as a good leader.  The quality of one’s leadership is in the ability to rally the best resources around oneself to face the current challenge head-on.
  3. Leadership is about relationships – This point can’t be reiterated enough.  It’s about an individual’s ability to influence others through emotionally intelligent interactions, to demonstrate a strong team approach, and to understand the personal and professional motivators of one’s team that provides the impetus for organizational progress.

So, how does this answer the aforementioned question?  The right answer lies not in the details of a particular degree, although I am a firm believer in the benefits of continued adult education.  But no degree, in and of itself, makes a good leader.  It’s the person, with their philosophy toward others and their willingness to both inspire and serve others, that makes a good leader.

A degree merely broadens a leader’s perspectives, which is a necessary element of taking charge in any situation.

5 thoughts on “Leadership: It’s Not about Your Degree

  1. Trevor,

    I am hopeful your answer to the student included spending several summers as a staff member at Camp Manito-wish. The leadership and followership skills I learned as a camper and a staff member at Camp serve me well to this day.

    So Leadership is also about experiences and have opportunities to practice leading where the risks are actual and the feedback is immediate. Then having the self reflection capacity to see understand how your decisions impacted those around you.

    1. Agreed, Greg. Manito-Wish stands as one of the best leadership training grounds I have ever discovered.

      You point out the importance of self-reflection. I couldn’t agree more that without it, leadership consists of floundering and wondering why successes and failures occurred. Great addition!

  2. Trevor great insight into leadership. I remember asking that question myself as an undergraduate student. Not satisfied with many of the answers I received I went on an all out hunt to find leadership truth. I know I grew in my abilities but it wasn’t until I learned the difference between good and great leaders lies often in the “finesse” of leadership. What the “finesse” is I still do not completely understand but I know it has to do with a passion for others and a willingness to serve boldly. Well said – thanks for sharing.

    1. Mark, I love the concept of leadership “finesse.” And I do think it can differ between one leader and another, possibly because the relationships between any two people (i.e., a leader and a follower) are unique from all others. Therefore, the dynamics involved in the interactions between two unique individuals, and circumscribed in a particular environment and situation, will differ every so slightly. Regardless, I think you hit the nail on the head in your comment about servant leadership. As leaders, we are only as good as our followers allow us to be, and the way in which we best enable them to reach their potential is to remove barriers and facilitate their greatness, i.e., be servant leaders. Thanks so much for your contributions to this discussion, Mark!

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