Colleges, despite stated goals, are selecting high performers, not leaders. Grade point averages and résumés are about standing out from the pack, not truly leading it. Emphasizing these criteria promotes unhealthy, Type-A behaviors in high schoolers who push themselves out of fear of rejection. We should define leadership more thoughtfully.
In my work with young men, I see leadership at pivotal moments that demand a courageous response. Facing an unfair coach. Confronting a bully. Sticking by a friend who comes out to them about his sexual identity. At pivotal moments these boys, often shy and unassuming, find their voice. They stand up for what matters to them, but not in a self-promoting way. They demonstrate a quiet resolve that has the power to help others see things differently.
Rosa Parks comes up frequently in office discussions, in addition to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Lincoln. Boys I talk with also admire celebrities as varied as Derek Jeter and Ellen DeGeneres.
The boys I know with leadership potential are passionate yet emotionally measured, self-reflective and able to position themselves as learners. They don’t idealize popularity and can step outside social media and trends to think for themselves. They don’t showboat or pad their online profiles. And like the Rosa Parkses of the world, they don’t stand out until they stand up, leading decisively at pivotal moments of their choosing.