Leadership, Motivation and Responsibility in Collegiate Student Organizations
How to Lead so Others Will Follow
Leading a group of college students can often be a challenging balancing act. On one hand, many students need a bit of prodding to get serious work done on a project. On the other, push too hard and you risk losing potentially bright and hard-working students who could benefit any organization. To toe the line, it’s important to create an environment that is stress-free enough that other students want to be there but not so laid back that it fails to be productive.
Creating this goldilocks zone environment starts at the top. As the head of an organization or a group within an organization, the person in charge needs to carry themselves in a way that sets the standard for expected behavior. Anyone new to the organization will look to you, as the leader, to know what is acceptable and unacceptable. For many organizations – especially student governments – it is the student’s responsibility to act as a liaison between the student body and the administration. As such, students need to carry themselves in a way that won’t offend administrators but won’t intimidate other students. Failing to do both, from my experience, can be problematic.
Personally, I’ve served as the Academic Affairs Committee Chairman of my school’s Student Government Association for nearly two years and was elected to start my third term at the end of last year. I came in as a freshman, the youngest person in my committee and in Senate Leadership (our governing body of student government) more broadly. My first worry was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously; I thought that the other students and administrators would look down on me and write me off. I did everything I could to run a tight ship. While it may have made some administrators see me as responsible it caused a lot of the students in my committee to lose interest. I failed to balance. Despite what I saw as firm leadership, no one was interested and, as a result, no one pulled their weight. Part of the reason for this, I have since realized, is that I tried to dictate what to do rather than genuinely work to get students interested and involved in the changes I was looking for.
One of the lessons that I’ve learned since then is that you can’t expect to motivate anyone unless you can give them a reason to be motivated. While it may sound obvious, it’s easy to overlook what other people in your organization are truly taking out of your group’s work, especially those who aren’t in a position of leadership. Even though you may see “goals” as the right thing to focus on, step back and consider what others will really get out of it. Are the goals achievable? Without a goal that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time – especially before the majority of your group member’s graduate – it’s hard to expect your group members to stay interested. Will achieving the goal benefit the whole group? The whole school? Is the goal more than a personal desire? Setting overarching goals gives everyone a personal stake in the matter that helps to keep them interested for their own benefit.
An example of this from my own experience is a library project that I’ve been working on for the last year or so with my committee. I won’t pretend that the library is the top priority for everyone in my committee or that everyone is willing to put in 110% effort to better it, but the library as a resource is something that everyone uses and everyone benefits from. It makes it a lot easier to ask someone to do something – sort through data, table for a survey, change their Facebook status – when that person is invested in some way in the change you’re seeking.
Another big part of creating a comfortable and productive environment is being able to work around other people’s schedules and lifestyles. Being flexible allows you to get things done in a manner that won’t disrupt (or potentially alienate) other members of your group. Don’t set group meeting times or plans to meet with administrators based simply on your own schedule; not only does it come off as self-important, you lose valuable insight and participation from other people. It can also make people feel like you actively seek to exclude them, which will undoubtedly serve to dishearten that group member and diminish their contributions. Failing to work as a member of a group that you lead is a sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot when it comes to creating an environment where people are motivated. You need to be sure to remember that you are a student, too. Even though you may be “in charge,” in the grand scheme of things you are the same as the people you are leading. If you don’t act in a way that shows this you are destined to lose credibility and support. Working around others can also mean conducting business and meetings in a way you aren’t accustomed to. I remember having to text all of my committee updates to one member of my committee because he didn’t actively check his email. How anyone can survive college without checking their email is beyond me, but I had to recognize that simply because he didn’t do it didn’t mean that he wasn’t committed or working hard. I just needed to alter my way of doing things.
College students present a challenge for any leader or organizer. While many college students need a degree of focus and direction to accomplish tasks, any leader needs to recognize that college students are overwhelmingly busy. For the first time in their lives many students have to balance a challenging course load and living on their own, as well as active participation in numerous clubs and organizations and even a job to help cover expenses. There is only so much that many students can give and it’s important, as a leader, to recognize that one student’s expectations and commitment may be less than what yours are for a perfectly good reason. This took me a long time to understand. At first I assumed that they simply weren’t invested enough and if they aren’t putting in the effort then, well, to hell with them anyway. But this isn’t the way to run a group or club. It isn’t the way to run a governance body. While you need to have expectations, you need to have them on a case-by-case basis so that they can be realistic for everyone. And not just because it’s fair. Doing so also gets everyone invested in the group and maximizes productivity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you have to make the environment fun. Remember that most members of clubs and student governments don’t get paid. They are at the meetings because they want to be and, as a leader, you need to make them feel like their time is being well spent or else they may do something else with it. Forge friendships. Talk about things other than business. Don’t be afraid to laugh and make others laugh. Doing so makes your meetings feel more like a chance to hang out with friends than a job or responsibility and, while you have to get your business done, make sure that you don’t spend all your time on just business. If you can give people a reason to show up and a reason to stay, they’ll be far more willing to get work done to help out.
Collegiate leadership is a balancing act. As a leader, you need to foster a productive and enjoyable environment where students can have fun and be productive. Most student organizations and student governments are voluntary and students can walk away at any time. It is important to remember that what you see as logical and crucial goals may not be so logical or crucial to everyone in the group. Step back and try to think as objectively as possible about what you want to get done. Do the other members care about it? Will they be willing to work for it? Is there an actual “solution” that can be achieved? Without these, many group members will likely give less than 100% and your project may flounder. While you want to lead from the front and set an example, don’t get too caught up in yourself. You’re still a student and you’d do best to remember that. Finding the right balance – between business and fun, structure and free-for-all, serious and silly – is crucial when leading any organization.