Got to love the emergency exit row on the plane, aka “1st class for the working class.” I’m what you would call an “extra healthy” American so I greatly appreciate the extra legroom. Call me weird but getting my knees crushed milliseconds after takeoff by a rambunctious seat recline by the 5’2” middle-aged kindle-reading individual in front of me is not my idea of comfort.
The exit row comes with its responsibilities, though. You have to read the safety brochure to know how to throw the door out and you have to get the rafts floating. You have to actually pay attention to the flight attendant safety briefing because they give you extra guilty looks if you don’t. One of the most disregarded parts of the emergency exit row experience is the question they ask you before taxiing to the runway: “Are you willing and able to help out in case of an emergency?”
That question got me thinking…what if we asked a very similar question to students and our newer employees?
“Are are you willing and able to lead?”
I am very fortunate, I get to speak to thousands of individuals every year and one of the questions I most consistently get asked when I speak at colleges is, “We have a lot of students in our organization who are not stepping up and taking leadership roles when they are available. So what should we do?”
Let’s have a quick moment of honesty; not every student or newer employee is ready to be a leader, at least in the capacity or at the time that we may want/need them to be. And that is OK! Please note: this means students and new employees should still be sought out and empowered to take leadership roles but we need to realize not everyone is looking or ready for that experience. So you need to use your time and resources wisely. That is why I think we need to ask: Are you willing and able to lead? Let’s break that down.
First: Student/Newer employee, are you willing to lead? When we ask this question we are also asking the following questions: Are you excited to lead? Do you have a vision? Do you care enough to prioritize this role? Are you prepared to hold others accountable? Are you ready to make potentially unpopular decisions?
Second:Student/Newer employee, are you able to lead? In asking this question we are also inquiring: Do you have adequate time in your schedule for this? What other leadership experience do you have or have you observed? How do you handle conflicts? Are you good at saying “no?” How do you handle politics and straddling the line of appeasing those above you and pushing your organization’s agenda?
All of a student/newer employee’s answers do not need to be perfect or fully flushed out. There is a lot of value in attempting to lead and struggling at it, as a way of experiential learning. Also, as we all know, we are good at getting in our own way and sometimes we need someone to motivate us to try something new. A good advisor can tell the difference between students who will be overwhelmed by a position and students who are just unsure of themselves. I firmly believe that student/newer employee’s roles are a valuable “leadership residency,” equivalent to a medical residency – just with less blood…hopefully. But rarely do we ask the questions above before a student is in their position. If we did, we, as supervisors and advisors, would be better at setting up our organizations for success because we bring expectations to where there is blind optimism, more concrete thoughts to dreams, and the idea time management into seemingly never-full-enough calendars. If we approached our teams differently, we would see an increase in forethought among our students individually and collectively, as well as a likely decrease in burnout among our student leaders and newer employees.
Supervisors, advisors, and experienced student leaders, it is time to have more honest conversations with your newer employees, students, and peers, respectively, before they take on leadership positions. A little more work upfront will better set up our organizations and communities for greatness. We should ask would-be (or should-be) interested students and newer employees: Are you willing and able to lead?