A Leadership Addiction

Harvard sometimes prioritizes leadership for its own sake

Throughout April, students who have received “fat envelopes” from Harvard will flock to the campus to see if this is the place for them. In all likelihood, most of these individuals were presidents of something: their high school class, National Honor Society, or even Spanish Club, the list goes on. However, if these students choose to attend Harvard, they will quickly realize that their days of leading every club that they joined are over. In many ways, this is a good thing.

As a school, and in a larger sense as a nation, we have a leadership addiction. The application process for a school like Harvard is rigorous and fiercely competitive. In order to differentiate themselves from the pack, many students (including most of us already here) pack their resumes full of presidencies, secretariats, basically anything that could give them a little leadership experience and elevate them above “member” status. In short, purchasing upgrades for our activities helps us stand out.

This practice is fine, and pretty much unavoidable insofar as admissions offices will always see holding an office in a group as a sign of greater investment and perseverance than simply membership in that group. This opens a door for ambitious and committed students to show their drive through running for every office they can. Unfortunately, this exultation of leadership positions comes at a price.

Perhaps the greatest drawback is that everyone has, over their years as overachievers, built a strong, almost irrepressible urge to lead in everything, regardless of whether or not they would be the best for the job. This mentality often leads to an inefficient allocation of leadership positions and also the creation of many different groups with the same purpose, seemingly just for the multiplication of leadership positions. Furthermore, this leads to a proliferation of leadership-based student groups, many of which seem to feature leadership specifically for leadership’s sake.

People disagree about how effectively a leadership group can actually teach leadership, but the problem with such groups is not related to their effectiveness. Instead, the true problem with these groups is that they further compound pressure on campus to be a leader and institutionalize the idea that being simply a “member” is not enough.


The fact of the matter is, not everyone can be leaders. In fact, leaders must be the minority. There is an Afghan proverb that says, “If you think you are leading, and no one is following you, you are only taking a walk.”  At Harvard, we are emphasizing leadership so strongly that if the current leader-centric culture is carried out to its logical conclusion, it won’t be long until we are all just “taking walks.”

What we need at Harvard is a pressure to be great in whatever capacity we can be great in, and an increased value on all sorts of roles in a hierarchy.  Some people are natural- born leaders and that is what they should do.  Kudos to them, Winston Churchill did far more for his country as Prime Minister than he could have in a low- level bureaucratic job.  However, not every soldier in Britain’s army would have made a good Prime Minister.  Sometimes the greatest impact we can make is made by following.

We tend to forget that there are many ways to be useful to a group or society, most of them not at the top of the leadership ladder.  While we spend countless hours and much energy trying to turn everyone into a leader, we may well be crushing a natural and able follower’s potential to make a difference.

William V. Bergstrom ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.