The First Beneficiary of Leadership Experiences is the Student

Fourth in a series of reflections on student life at West Texas A&M University.

One of the critical aspects of student life on a university campus is for students to become accustomed to, comfortable with and appreciative of the power of leadership. Students go to college ultimately to prepare for whatever is next in life, and the success of whatever is next, usually a career, depends on strong leaders. The importance of getting comfortable with saying “yes” (to new experiences, things that challenge you, etc.) provides opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Engagement is not just a college success strategy but a life skill. Engaging in studies makes a stronger student, and engaging with other people and organizations leads to better friendships at your job, making you a better worker, coworker and eventual leader. Gallup has a continuing interest in employee engagement and its importance in leadership. They define employee engagement as “… The involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.” Many habits and experiences that students experience while engaged in studies parallel the importance of involvement and enthusiasm when students reach the workplace. Universities have a fundamental responsibility to engage students on the subjects early and often in the educational experience. It is one of the only differences between online education and on-campus education. Gallup also suggests, “Employees make decisions and take actions every day that can affect your workforce and organization.” Not only do engaged students get a better experience personally, but they affect others and eventually the experiences of all involved in university life.

Student life as a preparation for work life requires that students learn to take positive risks. Anne Voller, vice president for talent acquisition at Macy’s stated, “The ability to handle change is one of the most important attributes we’re looking for in new hires. I need you to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” Engaged students can practice leadership, service, new ideas and being “rugged individualists” in what is considered a laboratory environment. The penalties for making a mistake in the “leadership lab” of a good college campus are far less burdensome than in the place of employment. Leadership roles in college allow individuals to get into deeper water where there are protective safety nets. By risk-taking here, we are referring to informed risk in settings that positively impact student experiences. Failure can be the product of learning, as long as students earnestly give it “the old college try.” Even in the professional world of commerce, smart leaders accept failure as the cost of progress. According to an anecdotal story, in all likelihood more fact than fiction, “Tom Watson, then president of IBM, called a VP to his office to discuss a failed development project that lost IBM in the range of $10 million. Expecting to be fired, the VP presented his letter of resignation. Tom Watson Jr. shook his head: “You are certainly not leaving after we just gave you a $10 million education.”

Unfortunately, too many universities with the best intentions try to protect students from carefully considered risk-taking. In a UPI story 35 years ago, students were reported to stay away from challenging courses. This is a form of risk aversion and admission of incapacity. Students who avoid challenging courses, and who do not seek out leadership opportunities that push their limits, are limiting their own growth, and such behavior is likely to carry in to their future positions in commerce, industry or government.

According to Gallup, leaders tend to value the best managers. That means that people capable of completing tasks on time, on budget and within the context of the assignment are influential in the workplace. There is a balance between leadership and management in every functioning person in the workplace. All leaders also have a management component in their work. Likewise, all managers have a requirement for leadership in their day-to-day work.

Leadership engagement for students on campus should also include a significant dose of followership. Good followers can and should practice the art of following. Indeed suggests several skills for a good following. Skills such as ego management, loyalty, humility, work ethic, courage, active listening, tact, teamwork, good judgment, adaptability, competency, and critical thinking. In settings that require teamwork, which is every conceivable employment and interpersonal environment, both leadership and followership are essential. It has been said that a person cannot be “over someone” until they have been “under someone.” In other words, you cannot effectively lead unless you can effectively follow. All good universities are full of these types of opportunities, in student government, and numerous leadership, service and professional development organizations, and students should seek these opportunities out.

Students should be challenged daily to be good leaders and good followers. Ultimately these skills will make for a successful transition into the workplace and provide the foundation for the high calling of engaged citizenship. That is the purpose of a university.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

Mike Knox is the Vice President for Student Enrollment Engagement and Success at West Texas A&M University



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