What is Leadership?

When discussing UC admissions (or just college admissions in general), the word “leadership” gets thrown around a lot. But what precisely do the UCs (or any of the colleges) mean by “leadership”?

Well, leadership is certainly not just a fancy title you hold. True leadership is about bringing people together to accomplish something as a group (accomplishing something by yourself because it needs to be done and no one else is doing it means you have initiative; while initiative is often the first step toward developing leadership, it is not the same as leadership).

What I frequently see is that students will mistake leadership titles or accomplishing something by themselves (rather than bringing people together to accomplish something as a group) as leadership abilities. Even when students have developed leadership abilities in their extracurricular activities, they are often not able to precisely articulate how they have done that or how they are effectively exercising their leadership abilities in their responses to the UC Personal Insight Questions.

Leadership exists in a variety of settings, through a variety of roles. Maybe as a volunteer, you organized the other 15 volunteers to collect goods for donation. You set up a contact list, coordinated pick up and drop off, assigned responsibilities to each volunteer, and resolved problems in order to make sure the right kinds of goods are collected and everything is donated to the right organizations. This is leadership regardless of whether you had a title or not (I’m sure you also know plenty of people with leadership titles who did absolutely nothing to help; but this is about you, NOT about them).

Back when I was still interviewing students for leadership scholarships, I saw a prime example of how students perceived leadership as “the person at the front, with the leadership title.” One of the interview questions asked students that if they were an ant in a march, would they be at the front, the middle, or the back. Without fail, all of the students said they would be at the front. As they enthusiastically charged ahead, I wonder if any of them would remember to look back to make sure their followers were actually behind them.

Instead of thinking about leadership as a title or where you are in the pecking order, consider your contribution toward the organization where you serve or the goals you have set. To use the ant example, I think I can safely argue that a great leader would want to be in the middle, where he or she could keep an eye on the ant at the front to offer support and reinforcement when needed, while also keeping an eye on the ant in the back (who is perhaps weaker and therefore at the back of the line) to make sure that ant doesn’t get lost or fall too far behind in the march. Similarly I can also make an argument that a great leader would want to be at the back, to supervise the march, ensure everyone is moving at a good pace (make adjustments as necessary since the last ant can see the whole march in front of him or her), and delegate responsibilities. The point is, leadership is about what you do to serve those around you, not about standing at the front and holding a title.

Sometimes leadership manifests not through what you have done but how you handle yourself in difficult situations. Maybe you had to work to help your family; that is sharing the responsibilities of running your organization (in this case, it happens to be your family) and making sacrifices for the greater good of your organization (trading study time or extracurricular participation for putting a roof over your family’s head or food on the table). Maybe you had to persevere through personal hardships; that is how you are developing character and empathy that will enable you to work well with others in the future.

Instead of being prideful of your many leadership titles or lamenting your lack of leadership roles, step back and look at your extracurricular activities from the perspective of how you have developed and exercised your leadership abilities. Emphasize your growth and development as a leader in your responses to the UC Personal Insight Questions, and discuss your success in serving your organization and those around you.

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