Throughout our four years in college, many of us will gain experience leading student organizations in some capacity. Our preconceptions of what it means to be a leader may be clouded by irate restaurant owners or overworked camp counselors, neither of whom place sufficient trust in their teenage subordinates.
There are several fundamental differences between a boss and a leader: a boss can ascribe blame onto others, micromanage, be manipulative and intimidate workers into doing what they want. A leader is someone who understands how people work. Often, the word leader is synonymous with boss — someone who achieves their goals through whatever means possible, someone who works above, not with, their employees.
In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three major leadership styles — authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire — finding that children led in an arts and crafts project responded best to democratic leadership. Since then, leadership style has expanded to a spectrum, ranging from authoritarian to laissez-faire leadership. Many of these styles overlap and include leaders who possess a hybrid of introverted and extroverted traits.
It may well be that few of us have ever had the experience of working under laissez-faire leadership. Laissez-faire leadership requires a base level of trust and competency from employees, which then enables a leader to step back and allow their employees to control not only the product or service, but the process involved in this production.
In her biography “Bossypants,” Tina Fey writes, “In most cases, being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” In my view, an effective leader is concerned with creating a good product. A great leader prioritizes the process behind this production, yielding a creative and satisfying technique that workers revel in throughout the journey, not just when the task is over.
However, a laissez-faire attitude may not always be viable for college students. The director of a student-run play will have to exert more authority over their actors to yield the best possible performance. A sports team will always need a captain to keep players focused with the ability to discipline players who do not follow regulations. But students may find it most effective to avoid pulling rank over other students their same age. In other words, don’t be a jerk to the same kids you party with on the weekends.
Whether it is true or not, there may be an underlying assumption from higher-ups that college students need greater coercion to stay on task, or that they cannot handle certain responsibilities. I’ve seen college students treat their peers in the same manner. Some students believe they must coerce discipline from their subordinates by being in complete control — demanding, not asking, tasks and deadlines to be met or not working with their peers to accomplish a goal.
On the other hand, college is an environment in which laissez-faire leadership thrives. Many e-boards run by students embrace an attitude that is inclusive, egalitarian and self-sufficient. Students handle budgets, projects, deadlines and clients just like in the real world, yet they don’t boss around students who are their same age. In my experience, some e-board members refuse to invoke the authority they’ve been given unless it’s necessary. Some students find it difficult to reprimand their peers or be less than sympathetic to others’ situations.
It’s tempting to trust or even vote for the person with the most confidence. Surely, they’ll be able to achieve what needs to be done because they advertise their motivation so well. But confidence can also undermine other people’s skills, ideas and contributions, allowing a leader’s position to eclipse another’s simply because “they know best.” Being in a higher position does not make anyone immune from the criticism and shortcomings every professional should face. Perhaps in a college election, voting for the person you’d prefer to have a beer with is indicative of who you would prefer for the job.
Kristen DiPietra is a junior double-majoring in English and human development.