Unpopular Opinion: Sorry, I Don’t Want to Be a Leader

Karen Zhang, Maroon-News Staff

During my college application, I spent tons of time going to college talks and browsing through websites of different universities, hoping to figure out what kinds of students American colleges would want. One thing that perplexed me throughout my application process is the emphasis on leadership.“We want students who demonstrate excellent leadership skills”; “Our mission is to foster global leaders”—Similar slogans are so ubiquitous on different college websites that sometimes I had to stop, scroll to the top of the webpage, and check which one I was browsing at that moment. They really all start to sound the same after a while.

I’ve hated being a leader ever since I was a kid. What I have learned from my life experience is that I am a quiet introvert who would very much prefer to do my work efficiently and independently rather than motivating others in a group and hoping that we would, somehow, miraculously get the work done together. Because of this, I used to suffer greatly in group projects as a child — to be frank, I am still bitter that I was often the person who came up with the interesting idea and did most of the work in a group, while the “leader” simply took all the credit.

And to be honest, I don’t see anything wrong with not wanting to be a leader. There are people like me who feel more comfortable with focusing on solving the issues at hand than making decisions about what others should do. Why do colleges only want leaders, and not innovators? Due to my rebellious nature as a teenager, I then decided that I was going to write a personal statement on how I don’t want to be a leader. But when I shared this idea with my friends and my high school adviser, everyone told me that if I wrote about this in my personal statement, I might end up with nowhere to go for college. Who would want someone with no leadership skills?

So eventually I changed my topic for my personal statement. Safer choice, I guess. But to this day, sometimes I still wonder where I would end up if I did write an essay like this for college applications. Would any college still want me if I refused to be a leader?

Today we tend to attribute all positive personalities to leaders, as if these character traits belong only to someone in that position and no one else. A leader seems to be the only valuable individual in a team —not being a leader would simply make you a loser. Colleges like Colgate spend money and time to organize leadership workshops with the hope of making everyone good leaders. But is this too much?

I would say yes. Not everyone has to be a leader. First of all, the positive personalities that we often use to describe a good leader do not necessarily belong solely to someone in a leadership position. Individuals can be efficient, cooperative, and innovative without having to be a leader. Their skills are indispensable to a team, but this does not mean that they must take up leadership positions in order to demonstrate this.

Second, too much fixation on leadership can cause us to ignore the real work at hand. Why don’t we pay more attention to thinking about more effective solutions to the exigent problems, instead of spending so much time and energy wondering what could make us good leaders? After all, we don’t need everyone to be a leader in the team. If everyone seeks to become leaders and make decisions for the team, the problem may simply become more complicated.

Third, and most importantly, not being in leadership positions does not undermine our self-worth, and does not make us less valuable. Even if we are not leaders, we often can still do so much more that a leader may not be able to do. Having leadership skills is not the only thing that gives us fulfillment in life. It also shall not be the only standard for college to select their students. 

So maybe a better way to tell everyone is to “know thyself” and know your role. I don’t think I have to be a leader if I don’t want to. Neither do you.