I’m visiting Penn State today and will be in State College this weekend to help launch the Penn State Leadership Association, the Penn State Alumni Association’s latest alumni interest group. This got me thinking about a few years ago when I was invited along with Gavin Keirans to speak to some of the student leadership in the University Park Undergraduate Association.

(I’m including a photo of Old Willow that I took recently because it was Penn State’s first student tradition, and should be a symbol of ours again.)

I first distributed copies of The Nittany Valley Society’sIs Penn State a Real University?,” an evergreen book which I think of as a primer for great conversation about Penn State as either a “corporation to be managed” or an “institution to be governed.” When everyone in the room had a copy I spoke loosely following the notes below about the value of cultivating authority by becoming attractiveness in order to be an effective leader.

I’m posting these notes because I think there’s some continuing value when it comes to thinking about leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader, but almost no one talks about what it takes to be a follower. Yet leadership is the yin to followership’s yang. One cannot exist without the other.

A little about me

The role of a government is governance

  • UPUA says it’s a student government, and yet most people on campus don’t know what it is and never will. And this is perfectly fine. Low voter turnout is a sign of constituency satisfaction. Only dictatorships have super high voter turnout—think Hosni Mubarak getting 100% of the vote, etc.
  • The thing is this: What you call “apathy” (low turnout) isn’t apathy at all. Students are tremendously engaged on this campus. There are 700+ student organizations. Your problem is just that they’re just not engaged with you.
  • So how can a student government govern a campus that regards its approach as irrelevant?
  • If governance is cooperative, how are you learning to cooperative with your peers?

‘Raising awareness’ is not a solution

  • The first approach to student apathy toward toward government is some form of “raising awareness”—but there’s not enough oxygen in the room to do this.
  • This model fails because it says, “Let’s plaster this finite bulletin board with more bulletins.” It’s like flooding a Facebook newsfeed—you might raise awareness, but not in a healthy way.
  • When student leaders declare year in and out that its success is dependent on people’s awareness of its existence, it’s basically acting arrogantly. It’s implying that the problem is, “We just haven’t talked about ourselves enough.”
  • There’s no modesty to this approach. There’s no humility there. No one likes going on a date where the guy spends the whole night talking. It’s unattractive.

Learn to be attractive by empowering peer leaders

  • Attractive people don’t have to work to get dates—unless they have bad personalities. And to carry the analogy out, student government is not only unattractive, it’s also got a bad personality.
  • Thought experiment: If a freshman walked up to a student leader and asked “What concretely do you do to build up Penn State?” what would the answer be?
  • Real leaders are servants. They seek to serve others by creating or building up something attractive for everyone to enjoy. Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” nearly a half century ago. His seminal book, which is available for $10 on Amazon is “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness“.
  • Greenleaf’s suggests that real power is earned by submitting yourself to others. In other words, by making friends. And in so doing, cultivating meaningful leadership authority.
  • In this paradigm, peer-sourced authority rather than self-styled power of an office is the source of the strength of a meaningful leader, because a leader is someone others are willing to follow. Leadership requires followership.
  • What am I saying? Campus policy is the least important thing you could focus on. People are the most important focus, because they’re potential friends and allies and mentors and novelties that define the true Penn State experience.
  • Your challenge: Go out across the campus and become personal and personable (personal—this means intimately, not superficially; it means you might go to their wedding or funeral someday). Become friends with trustees and professors and deans and townspeople. Ask them to have you over for dinner. Institute personal coffees and beer meetings like professors have office hours with existing presidents of fraternities and sororities and interesting campus clubs. Go to Rotary, Kiwanis, and church association meetings. If you want to lead, these are the sorts of people you’ll need to get to follow you. And to attract them, you have to learn to be attractive.
  • Let them know you want to be friends. Let them know, “I’m here for you, whatever you need.” In this paradigm, governance becomes a team affair. You can build your own team by meeting existing leaders rather than vying for some abstract level of importance based upon policies that you end up dissatisfied with because of a lack of awareness or interest in dry policy issues.

Learning from past experience

  • What I’m talking about might seem abstract. “How can we be successful if we just make friends with people?,” you wonder. Or: “If we don’t win on policy, or even try to engage in political battles, what is there? If we’re not in Onward State for our new programs?”
  • Yet: What I’m talking about was once real on this campus, and in fact was the definitive model of student leadership starting in the 1930s in a formal way, and which existed even prior informally among class societies.
  • The institutionalized version of this leadership model was called the “All College Cabinet,” and it was a student governance model that empowered existing leaders of campus groups within a single body, with a cabinet-elected student body president and vice president. It was a combination democracy and aristocracy, and it was a tremendously dynamic model.
  • Today we act as if we’re miniature congressmen, and go on talking about ourselves and engaging in policy concerns. It’s not only self-defeating, it’s unattractive.

This community is attractive

  • The beauty of the Nittany Valley is everywhere around us. Our history lives or dies within each of us, depending on how we treat it. And the affection alumni bring back and students naturally have on entering under the shadow of Mount Nittany needs to be conveyed from generation to generation.
  • As leaders (as the elite, the aristocracy, whether you like it or not) this is your fundamental job. To make friends, to be attractive in order to attract, and as Shakespeare said, to treat the world as a stage where you are the actors—which means you’ve got to put on a show worth watching, and worth hearing about.
  • Learn our history. Visit The University Club and make friends with their general manager. Visit University Archives and ask Jackie Esposito to show you something unexpected. Linger in University House that Evan Pugh built and enjoy the LaVies and Archives in Hintz’s Robb Hall. Know and love our dynamic, shared story—and know it intimately through its personalities rather than superficialities.
  • If you come to know it in a authentic and muscular sense, not only will you not repeat its dark spots and failings, but you’ll become interesting and attractive. Freshman will want to hear from student leadership. And people will want to know you personally, which is one of the most relevant life skills you could hope to perfect.
  • And the real University is a place of people, people who come together and come to know one another for a short time, and go off with a common vision to shape the world, before fading into the pages of history’s latest chapter.