Student leaders are finding themselves slipping into a period of transition. It's time for new student leader election and selection processes. Some student leaders have already had their successors named for next year. It's a period of time that I call the "fork in the road" season for student leaders - where they choose to complete the demands of their position with frustration, stagnation, or concentration (these issues will be addressed in my upcoming studentl.inc ebook, The Six Seasons of A Student Leader Year).
I love Yogi Berra's wisdom - "If you come to a fork in the road...take it!" While that may be the easiest way to decide, those in student leadership must choose what direction they will take at this time of year - either they will bow out early and experience a leadership breakdown, or they will finish strong and accomplish some leadership breakthroughs.*
Consider the following - each represents a movement toward breakdown or breakthrough.
Comparison vs Observation
There is a fine line between looking at the work of others to learn versus looking to compare. I've always said that if you play the comparison game, you will always lose. There will always be someone out there who is doing it better, faster, and stronger than you. But the comparison game is unrealistic. This is because a person ends up comparing all that they know about themselves to all that they don't know about someone else.
In student leadership, it's easy to see where others might have done a better job than you in certain areas. It's easy to reflect on the past and go back to the good 'ol days. It's easy to say, "I'll never be as good as so-and-so." When a student leader focuses on the comparisons, they start marching down the road of a leadership breakdown.
But comparison can be a healthy thing when approached from a different perspective. It can show us the blind spots in our leadership and it can affirm the qualities that we possess. But I wouldn't call it comparison, as much as I would call it, observation. Observation opens the door to personal growth. When we observe, we ask questions - we consider what is going on in other places and seek to learn from what we see. When we observe, we listen. When we observe, we allow others to teach us things.
Reflection Questions: Which way you headed: comparison or observation?
• When you see someone else's success are you jealous or do you celebrate with them?
• When someone else is successful, do you focus on their accolades or on the things they did to be successful?
• Do you see others as people to compete with you or as people who can complete you?
• Do you know everything there is to know about your position or are you still discovering new things?
Rationalization vs Responsibility
I've heard it said, "When you rationalize, you do just that - you make rational lies." This is easy to do when we start to get busy, when we become overwhelmed by our to do list and become stretched a little too thin. At this time of year, student leaders begin to dabble with rationalizing. It's one of the first signs that they're headed for a breakdown.
We tend to rationalize when:
• Our priorities are out of whack.
• We lose our passion and energy for our position.
• We don't see the value in finishing strong.
For student leaders, the temptation to rationalize comes when we realize that we're not performing at the level of excellence we're capable of. We find that it's easier to come up with excuses then to make the difficult decision to take care of our responsibilities.
The breakthrough in this area comes when a student leader re-commits to see the position through to the end. There is a price to be paid whenever one accepts a certain level of responsibility. Often, when we feel that the price is too high, we will trade in our commitment for convenience. The difference between a leader and a follower is found in the willingness one has to accept responsibilty. I have heard a lot of "good reasons" for student leaders shirking their responsibilities as it gets close to the end. But it never, ever comes close to matching the sense of satisfaction and personal pride of the one who sees his or her responsibility through to the end.
Reflection Questions: Which way you headed: rationalization or responsibility?
• Are you wrestling more with reasons to quit than reasons to stay?
• What were the things that got you excited about this position and have you accomplished everything you set out to accomplish?
• Are there others on your team that feel like stepping away and are you motivating them toward finishing strong or walking away early?
• When the story is told about this year, how do you want to be remembered in your position? As a leader?
Isolation vs Connection
At this point in the student leader year, if you haven't established a team of people to assist you in your responsibilities and to invest in, well...you're probably starting to feel a little lonely. The tendency of most is to start to withdraw from people when they feel like they're starting to withdraw from their leadership position.
When we isolate ourselves at any point in our student leadership journey, we lack a few things that are necessary for our success and survival. We lack:
• Relationships - Key people who will help us tackle problems and complement our weaknesses
• Accountability - The chance to see things from another perspective and not get stuck in a rut
• Mentoring - The opportunity to grow under someone who can add value to our lives
We isolate ourselves because we don't want others to know how we're really feeling or because we realize that we may not be living up to level of expectation that we set for ourselves. We would rather not talk to anyone than to hear how people are unhappy with us. Unfortunately, we must overcome this insecurity and fear of feedback if we're ever going to develop as a student leader.
The path to breakthrough occurs when we have developed deep and meaningful relationships with people who can invest in us, support us, encourage us, give us direction, confront us, and care about us. It is unfortunate that we often realize our need for people at a time when we need them most, only to realize that we didn't cultivate these necessary relationships when we had the chance.
A student leader may feel a certain tug to step away from his or her position, but he or she never feels the need to step away from key relationships. The student leader connects with people because he or she values people.
Reflection Questions: Which way you headed: isolation or connection?
• Do you feel like you're pulling away or moving towards people at this stage of the year?
• Are you excited about getting new people involved or do you dread when people approach you about an idea?
• How do you handle differences of opinion or different personalities?
• Do you focus more on motivating yourself than you do on motivating others?
Regret vs Resolve
Jim Rohn says, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” At this point in the year, there are many questions that a student leader begins to ask: "Was it worth it?" "Am I really making a difference?" "What kind of effort can I honestly put into this thing in the last few months?"
These types of questions can conjure up feelings of regret over what we expected to happen and where we are currently at. It can also motivate us to make the most of the moments we have left to serve. The difficulty with regret is that it comes with the realization that we can't go back and change what has already happened. The beauty of resolve is that it doesn't matter what's happened in the past, we keep our eyes focused on where we're headed in the present.
The breakthrough comes when we are able to focus, to concentrate on those areas that we can lend our strengths to. Our resolve to finish strong will be one of the most important contibuting factors to us being able to look back and not have any regret.
Reflection Questions: Which way you headed: regret or resolve?
• Has your student leadership experience lived up to your expectations? If not, can you do anything about it to bring things around?
• What have you learned this year and how do you plan to use what you've learned in the future?
• What would you share with the person who will serve in your position next year? How could you help them to handle the decision toward regret or resolve?
• Do you feel like things in the past are keeping you from focusing on the future?
Bitterness vs Positive Attitude
I know that this is going to sound a little cheesy, but here goes: You can become bitter or you can become better. It is not unreasonable to think that you've experienced something that has hurt you this year, that has frustrated you, that has left you feeling mad at people and systems...welcome to leadership. But it's what you do with those hurts and disappointments that can leave you bitter or better. John Maxwell writes:
"If you hold onto disappointment, you become bitter. If you learn from disappointment, you have a better chance of not facing the same disappointment later on. I have found that grudges hurt me more than they will the other person; therefore clinging to bitterness wastes time and energy.
When you are leading a group of people, your attitude is extremely important. Because attitudes are contagious, your team will recognize your attitude and adapt to the example you set. If you appear irritated about the challenges your team faces, then your team members will become irritated too.
Your progress and the chance for success will be hindered if your attitude isn't right. It is impossible for us to tailor our situations to fit our lives, but it is possible to tailor our attitudes to fit our situations.
Bitterness is the quickest way to experience a leadership breakdown. Of all the things you will experience as a student leader, your attitude will be the one thing that you get to decide upon each and everyday. If you choose to have a positive attitude, it will provide the breakthrough toward your continued success and leadership growth.
Leadership develops from the inside out. Don't wait for someone to come alongside and hold your hand and make these types of decisions for you. You are the leader! You get to choose. My hope is that you will strive to be on the path to breakthrough rather than breakdown. It's up to you.
Reflection Questions: Which way you headed: bitterness or positive attitude?
• Do you see the worst in situations or can you identify the good?
• What are you doing with the past hurts in your life: are you holding onto them or are you letting them go?
• What kind of people do you like to hang around with: people who are bitter or people who are positive? Who are the positive people that you can spend more time with?
• What value do you find in holding on to bitterness and leading a team of people? What value do you find in a positive attitude?
*NOTE: The concept of leadership breakdowns and breakthroughs was first introduced to me in a Leadership Wired e-newsletter by Dr. John C. Maxwell (December, 2000). I am using his outline for this post and adding my own commentary to it. You can subscribe to Leadership Wired by following this link.