Becoming an Exemplary Student Leader


Do you have what it takes to lead? Maybe all you need is a little Leadership 101 training. Barry Posner can give it to you. His book The Student Leadership Challenge: Five Practices for Becoming an Exemplary Leader is all about growing your leadership capabilities as a student. He was cool enough to share a modified excerpt from that book with us, where he talks about some of the fundamentals of leadership: knowing who you are and what you stand for. So take a look—and then take charge!

“Hi, I’m your new leader.”

Imagine someone approaching you with this proclamation. What is the first question you want to ask this person? We’ve posed this scenario to thousands of people, and the most common thing they say they want to know is “Who are you?” More than likely this is one of the questions you’d most want to ask someone who’s your new leader. If it is, then doesn’t it make sense that “Who are you?” is the first question you should be able to answer for yourself? Finding that answer is where every leadership journey begins.

When Grant Hillestad joined an organization called Students Stay Leaders Forever (STLF), he soon found himself on a “Pay It Forward Tour,” one of STLF’s community service road trips that go from city to city doing different service projects. Students travel on a chartered bus to visit cities large and small to learn about a variety of social issues; the idea is that in the process they will discover more about themselves, their own community, and the world. This experience was so transformative for Grant, that when he started college he was eager to organize a chapter on his campus, but he realized that it wasn't going to be easy.

He started by talking openly and honestly with his classmates about the value he saw in STLF, and he was able to gain enough support to have the organization recognized on his campus. That was a positive first step, but getting students to actually join a road trip was another challenge. Grant told us, “Friends would say things like, ‘You want me to pay to go and work during spring break! Are you nuts?’”

I knew what they were feeling; they wanted to do what everyone else was doing for spring break and many were nervous about the trip and all the unknowns. I just kept telling people how much my trips had meant to me, what we accomplished, and what I learned about myself and people in communities different from my own.

Grant discovered that others needed the time to figure out how the trip would mesh with their own values; then they could each take the first step and make the sacrifices required to participate in STLF. Once they did, the road trip was a big success. It began as an experience for 27 strangers and finished as an adventure for 27 best friends. The students discovered individually and collectively the deep value of going into new places, facing very challenging situations, and working together to get something done to help others.

The personal-best leadership cases we’ve collected are, at their core, the stories of people like Grant who were clear about their personal values and understood how this clarity gave them the courage to navigate difficult situations and make tough choices. People expect their leaders to speak out on matters of values and conscience, to be clear about what matters to them. But to speak out you have to know what to speak about. To stand up for your beliefs, you have to know the beliefs you stand for. To walk the talk, you have to have a talk to walk. To do what you say, you have to know what you want to say.

To become a credible leader you have to fully comprehend the deeply held beliefs—the values, standards, ethics, and ideals—that drive you. You have to freely and honestly choose the principles you will use to guide your decisions and actions. Then you have to genuinely express yourself. By genuinely we mean that you communicate in a way that truly portrays who you are as a person and as a leader. You have to authentically communicate your beliefs in ways that clearly represent who you are so that people can know you––the real you, not some portrayal of who you think you should be.

However, leaders aren’t just speaking for themselves when they talk about the values that should guide decisions and actions. When leaders passionately express a commitment to learning or innovation or service or some other value, those leaders aren’t just saying, “I believe in this.” They’re also making a commitment for an entire group. They’re saying, “We all believe in this.” Therefore, you must not only be clear about their own personal guiding principles, but you must also make sure that there’s agreement on a set of shared values among everyone you lead. And you must hold others accountable to those values and standards. 

Find your voice

How do you want to be known as a person? How do you want to be thought of as a leader? What would you say if someone asked you those questions? Are you prepared right now to answer them? If you aren’t, you should be. And if you are, you need to think about them every single day.

Before you can become a credible leader—one who connects what you say with what you do—you first have to find your voice. If you can’t find your voice, you’ll end up sounding like someone else is talking for you. We’ve all known people who “fake it,” who try to sound like someone else, or try to convince you of something they don’t really mean. When that happens, there is a disconnect; there’s that little inner voice that tells you not to completely buy into what is being said. If the words you speak are not your words but someone else’s, you won’t be consistent, in the long term, in what you say and what you do. You won’t have the credibility or trustworthiness to successfully lead others.

To find your voice, you have to explore your inner self. You have to discover what you care about, what defines you, and what makes you who you are. You can only be authentic when you lead according to the principles that matter most to you. Otherwise you’re just putting on an act. Consider Angel Accosta who works for an organization called College for Every Student (CFES), a nonprofit organization that raises the academic aspirations and performance of low-income kids so that they can prepare for, gain access to, and succeed in college.

Angel is the fifth of six children raised by a single mother from the Dominican Republic who worked multiple jobs and saved enough to bring her whole family to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. “I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college,” Angel told us. “And it wasn’t easy.”

Angel also faced a lot of pressure from his family. They were so excited about his potential that they thought they knew what path he should take. When Angel decided to major in anthropology, there were some long and hard conversations, but in the end Angel’s family supported him and he kept going. “My family’s values have always been ‘never say never,’” Angel said, “and I found my way. So now I am helping my nieces find theirs. It’s tough, but I’ve been there and I know what they are facing. When I tell them my story, they seem to listen a little more. They believe me.”

To be most effective, leaders must learn to find the voice that represents who they are. When you have clarified your values and found your voice, you will also find the inner confidence necessary to express ideas, choose a direction, make tough decisions, act with determination, support others, and be able to take charge of your life—rather than copying others.

Let your values guide you

Values influence every aspect of your life: your moral judgments; your responses to others; your commitments to your family, friends, school, and community; and your personal goals. Values set the boundaries for the hundreds of decisions and choices you make every day, consciously and subconsciously. And believe us: you make hundreds of decisions every day. Usually people don’t seriously consider choices that are outside their value system. It just doesn’t feel right to them. But sometimes a “whatever” attitude kicks in and they make poor choices. The question is, can you recognize when that attitude is kicking in? Can you stop yourself from giving in to it and instead listen to the voice in your head that knows “this doesn’t feel right”? We believe the best chances of this happening are when your internal voice is loud and clear.

Values constitute your personal “bottom line.” They serve as guides to the actions you take. They inform the priorities you set and the decisions you make. They tell you when to say yes and when to say no. They also help you explain the choices you make and why you made them. If you believe, for instance, that diversity makes things better, then you should know what to do if people with differing views keep getting cut off when they offer up fresh ideas. If you value working together over individual achievement, then you’ll know what to do when your teammate goes for the shot and ignores the better pass. All of the most critical decisions a leader makes involve values.

As Angel’s experience illustrates, values are guides. They supply you with a compass by which to navigate the course of your daily life. Clarity of values is essential to knowing which way is north, south, east, and west. The clearer you are about your values, the easier it is for you and for everyone else in your group to stay on the chosen path and commit to it. This kind of guidance is especially needed in difficult and uncertain times. When there are daily challenges that can throw you off course, it’s crucial that you have some signs that tell you where you are.

Say it in your own words

People can only speak the truth when speaking in their own true voice. The guidance from leadership books is not a substitute for who and what you are. Once you have the words you want to say, you must also give voice to those words. You must be able to express yourself so that everyone knows that it’s you who’s speaking.  To become a credible leader you have to learn to express yourself in ways that are uniquely your own. Take it from Taylor.

Taylor was still in high school when he learned the importance of finding his voice.  Driven by issues of heavy drinking in his family and the fact that he was seeing more and more of his classmates abusing alcohol, he decided that he needed to stand up to address the problem of underage drinking. With traditional celebratory events like prom and graduation coming up, Taylor knew it was a particularly risky time of the year for underage drinking. As he talked more and more about how he became aware of the risks involved and felt the potential for disaster, other students began to listen and share their personal stories and experiences too. Taylor found that many around him had similar perspectives and beliefs about protecting life from the very real threat of underage drinking. This helped them develop a unified voice that his group used to mobilize others in the community to talk about the issue to the city council. As a result, the city council agreed to sponsor a campaign to provide a drug-free environment and use a little-referenced city sign ordinance to reduce prominent alcohol advertising from area businesses by 25%.

Taylor’s experience shows the importance of being clear in your convictions and expressing your stance in your unique way. Taylor was able to bring others along who had similar concerns about the drinking issue, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that without being sure and articulate about where he stood. One of Taylor’s biggest challenges, as he spoke out, was making sure he voiced a position that others not only shared but also supported. By becoming very clear about what he was trying to accomplish, others joined him. Standing together, the members of his “coalition” gained a greater sense of confidence because they together became very clear and eloquent in their unified voice.

Taylor’s actions spoke volumes about how he and others in the community needed to take ownership of things they believed in and valued. Like Taylor, you cannot lead through someone else’s values or someone else’s words. You cannot lead out of someone else’s experience. You can only lead out of your own. Unless it’s your style, your manner, your words, it’s not you—it’s just an act. People don’t get truly engaged with you because of your title or your position. They follow you. If you’re not the real deal, can you really expect others to want to follow? To be a leader, you’ve got to awaken to the fact that you don’t have to copy someone else, you don’t have to read a script written by someone else, and you don’t have to wear someone else’s style. Instead, you are free to choose what you want to express and the way you want to express it. In fact, you have a responsibility to others to express yourself in an authentic manner, in a way they would immediately recognize as yours.

Clarify values to spark commitment

Personal values drive commitment. Clear personal values are the route to motivation and productivity. How can this be? How can it be that people who are very clear about their own values are more likely to stick around and work harder than those who know what the group stands for but are not clear about their own beliefs? Think about it. Have you ever had the feeling that “This place is not for me”? Have you ever walked into a place, immediately gotten the sense that “I don’t belong here,” and just walked right out? Or, have you ever just known that you belong, that you can be yourself, that “This is the right place for me”? Of course you have. Everyone has had those experiences.

It’s the same way in any group you’re in or job you might have. There comes a point when you recognize it is or isn’t a good fit with your values and beliefs. Even if you didn’t know the specific values of the organization, you see how the group behaves and performs. You won’t stick around a place (or a project, or a class) for very long when you feel in your heart and in your soul that you don’t belong. It’s one big reason why people join groups and then don’t stay for very long. Commitment is based upon alignment with personal values and who you are and what you are about. People who are clearest about personal values are better prepared to make choices based on principle—including deciding whether the principles of the organization fit with their own!

Affirm shared values

Leadership is not simply about your own values. It’s also about the values of those you are hoping to lead. Just as your own values drive your commitment to the organization, club, or team, other members’ personal values drive their own commitment. People will be significantly more engaged in a place where they believe they can stay true to their beliefs. While clarifying your own values is essential, understanding the values of others and building alignment around values that everyone can share is equally critical.

Bethany Fristad was about halfway through her first year in college when she started to recognize that she could serve a greater purpose.  She set out to find other student at her college who had an interest in helping disadvantaged children. A small group formed to establish a nonprofit organization; which they called “Firefleyes” to symbolize its ability to ignite the fire in peoples’ hearts and eyes.

Firefleyes members believe that underserved children can flourish if they have an environment where they can find their own voices through music, sports, arts, books, and crafts. The group promoted this belief by collecting enough resources to travel to Sierra Leone in West Africa and start the first of what Bethany calls “Creation Nation,” which are essentially playrooms where children explore their creative sides with all sorts of arts, crafts, and music.

By giving voice to her convictions, Bethany found many supportive and willing participants who shared her beliefs about how to help children do well and saw the value in what she wanted to do. Had she not been clear on what she was trying to accomplish and why, particularly in such a new and large endeavor, others could have easily cast aside her ideas as impractical. Yet Bethany persisted and appealed to the ideas she believed others shared about the need to help those less fortunate. She knew that the people she spoke with understood the value of creativity in helping children find their own dreams. She said that, ultimately, it was relatively simple to help fellow students see how they could transform their own values into specific actions that would benefit others as well.

Shared values are the pillars of productive and genuine working relationships. Credible leaders, like Bethany, honor the uniqueness and individuality of all the members of the group, but they also stress their common values. Leaders build on agreement. They don’t try to get everyone to be in agreement on everything. This goal is unrealistic, and trying to get everyone to agree or to make everyone happy can negate the very advantages of diversity. But to take the first step, and then a second, and then a third, people must have some common core of understanding. After all, if there’s no agreement about values, then what exactly are the leader and everyone else going to model? If disagreements over fundamental values continue, the results will be intense conflict, false expectations, and diminished capacity. Leaders ensure that everyone is aligned through the process of affirming shared values––holding one another accountable to what “we” value. Once people are clear about the leader’s values, about their own values, and about shared values, they know what’s expected of them and how they can count on others.

Give people reasons to care

Important as it is that leaders communicate the principles for which they stand, the values leaders live by must be consistent with the desires and needs of those who follow them. Leaders who promote values that aren’t representative of the group won’t be able to get people to act as one. There has to be a shared understanding of what’s expected. Leaders need to build agreement on a common cause and a common set of principles. They must be able to maintain a community of shared values. In this way a leader’s promise is really an organization’s promise, regardless of whether the organization is a team of two, an intramural softball team of ten, a fraternity of one hundred, a campus of seven thousand, a company of twenty thousand, or a town of two hundred thousand. Unless there’s agreement about which promises are to be kept, the organization, its members, and its leaders risk losing credibility.

Remember Grant Hillestad’s story of starting up an STLF chapter at his college? In arranging their first road trip, Grant said that the group’s planning for each city had been assigned to different people in order for them to learn and grow from the experience. Even though they were nervous that not enough preparations had been made in some locations, they had to let it play out because the organization valued learning by doing so deeply. “We were really worried that we’d get to a certain city and nothing would be ready,” Grant said. “If that happened the whole trip might be remembered for that aspect of the event. It really took a lot for us to say, ‘No, our mission is to reveal leadership through service. We have to trust that it will work out and that each of us will learn how to make it work out, not just a select few.’”

Grant’s experience is an example of how people become more committed when they can find alignment between their values and those of the group. The quality and accuracy of communication within the group, along with the integrity of the decision-making process, increase when people feel part of a team with the same values. Confidence in one another grows; stress and worry are reduced. People work harder and are more creative because they become fully engaged in what they are doing. We know that when there is solid understanding of the alignment between an individual’s values and those of the group, there is much greater productivity and success for everyone involved.

Exemplary leaders spend time with their group talking about values. Too many school groups spend very little time doing this. It tends to take place as a single occurrence, at the beginning of the school year or when a group is first formed or new members brought in. Frequent and continuing conversations reminding people why they care about what they are doing renew commitment and help people feel that they are on the same team.

Frequent and ongoing conversations with your group reinforce what is important to the group and to the individuals who make it up. Think about a time when you joined an organization as a new member. Did anyone talk to you about what the group stood for? Did you ask the question, “What is important to this group?” If you did, was the answer clear? If you didn’t, how do you know what the group was all about? The group’s values will guide everything they do and therefore it is very important to spend time, regularly, talking about those values. We know this can be initially challenging for any leader, but consider Kara Koser's experience.

Kara, as a resident assistant at her college, was trying to figure out how she could best meet the needs of her diverse resident population. With so many individuals, she wasn’t sure what activity she could ever do that would be of interest to the entire floor. She realized that she had to take the time to listen to others. What it took, she learned, was patience, because some people find it intimidating to share what is important to them. Kara took the approach of really listening to what others were thinking and talking about, and hearing what was important to them. The more they talked, the more comfortable it became for people sharing their ideas and visions. She encouraged her fellow residents knowing that if she could be respectful of the values of others while at the same time not letting her own voice be dimmed, the light would shine on the best solution for all. These conversations allowed the students to develop a greater sense of community and discover their shared values as they got to know each other better, and subsequently, how they wanted to spend their time together.

Forge unity, don’t force it

By encouraging ongoing discussion about the common values of the group, leaders avoid the pitfall of people wasting time and energy trying to figure out what they are supposed to do. When people are unsure about their roles they tend to lose focus or draw the group off topic; they may stop participating or leave the group altogether. The energy that goes into dealing with incompatible values, through arguments or misunderstandings, takes its toll on both the effectiveness of the leader and the activity level of the group. “What are our basic principles?” and “What do we believe in?” are far from simple questions. Even with commonly identified values, there may be little agreement on the meaning of values statements, and so leaders must encourage ongoing discussions about values. Even if there are many interpretations of a particular value, talking about them can lead to a common understanding and deeper commitment.

Shared values emerge from a process, not a pronouncement. Leaders can’t impose their values on the group’s members; they must actively involve people in the process of creating a set of shared values. These values are the result of listening, appreciating, building consensus, and resolving conflicts. For people to truly share values, they must participate in the process. In creating opportunities for ongoing conversations about shared values, it’s important that people get to reflect on and discuss how their personal beliefs and behaviors align with and are influenced by what the group stands for.

For values to be truly shared, they must be more than catchphrases or advertising slogans. They must be well understood and broadly endorsed beliefs about what’s important to the people who hold them. People must be able to talk about the values freely and have common interpretations of how those values will be put into practice. They must know what their values will look like in action and how their efforts directly contribute to the larger success of the group.

Having everyone on the same page when it comes to values has many benefits. It ensures consistency in what the group says and what they do. The result is high individual credibility and an excellent reputation for the group, further preparing people to discuss values and expectations when recruiting, selecting, and orienting new members. Whenever new members join your group, whether at the beginning of a term or in the middle of the year, knowing what the group stands for and talking about it openly helps everyone make more informed decisions about their engagement with the group. Having everyone aligned about shared values builds commitment and community, and that is precisely what leaders ultimately hope to do in pursuit of a common vision.

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