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Midterms month: time to evaluate our national or local leaders, get into bitter online arguments, and even vote. But as much as we complain when our leaders fall short of our expectations, we all know that leadership is a profoundly important resource in both civic and professional life. And even if we’re not headed for politics, we’re all headed for the job market.

In the context of your future career, you might be wondering:

  • What exactly is professional leadership?
  • What will leadership skills mean for my career?
  • Which personal characteristics are the most important for leadership?
  • What if I don’t have a “leader’s” personality or skill set?
  • How can I gain leadership experience as a student?
  • How can I present those skills to future employers?

For stories of two students who developed their leadership skills in different ways, read further.

“Roles and responsibilities I had never had before”
Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps

William Edwards, 19
University of Central Arkansas in Conway
Degree: Health sciences/physical therapy

The Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) provides men and women with an opportunity to prepare for service in the Army. “We make leaders from day one,” says Major Todd Gray, associate professor of military science at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Students who enroll in the ROTC “learn not just how to lead in the Army, but also at any company as soon as they graduate.”

More information.

What & why
William, a native of Texas, had turned down several soccer scholarships. He wanted a new way to challenge himself. “In the ROTC, I was instantly put into new roles and responsibilities. I had to organize my team and make sure they had all their equipment, showed up on time, and did their jobs. I was responsible for leading them from day one. In this program you learn to do things differently and take criticism.”

“I have surprised myself in my abilities to do things that I didn’t know I could do, like being a good time manager and commanding respect from my cadets.”

New goals
“I am committed to finding more opportunities to push me harder than I would push myself, whether that means taking on larger responsibilities each year, or something as simple as being the first to go at a task.”

“ROTC is a great thing to do and you can try it out without committing to it. Trying new things can’t hurt you.”

“Ideas are easy, practice is hard”
Disability advocacy academy

Lydia Brown, 21
Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Degree: Arabic major, psychology minor

The Autism Campus Inclusion (ACI) Summer Leadership Academy brings together students on the autism spectrum for training in disability advocacy.

More information.

What & why
“We should be celebrating the diversity of students with disabilities, rather than trying to ‘cure’ them” (a concept known as neurodiversity), says Lydia. She was concerned too about the barriers to higher education facing students with disabilities. She helped create the No Wrong Door project, a listing of resources for students with disabilities; organized letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, and protests; and drafted legislation. When her school announced a panel on autism, she successfully advocated for the inclusion of an autistic person.

“I developed a much clearer idea of what leadership looks like. It is very easy to organize people around an idea, but very hard to put it into practice.”

New goals
“I founded the non-profit organization Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective to fill the gaps that still exist for students with disabilities.”

“Find leadership programs that line up with your values and passion.”

Interviewer shaking hands

Which qualities do you most admire in our national leaders?

“I admire people who do not strive for fame but work hard fighting for human rights and equality.”
Dana G.*, fourth-year student at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
*Name changed for privacy

“I admire anyone who knows the value they bring to the table. Everyone has different sets of skills and talents. Also I respect those who know when to let others shine and step back.”
Jorge Z., third-year student at Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin

“I admire any person who not only looks out for our country financially but also socially. America is one of the newest countries that holds any power in the world. I pride myself on our ability to accept differences and be pro-social change.”
Elaine R., fourth-year student at Towson University, Maryland

“Anyone who is self-sacrificing. Who puts themselves last. Who does not have an agenda.”
Laura E., University of West Georgia in Carrollton

Which US politicians do students most admire—and most despise?

Most admired:

  • Hillary Clinton [D] Former Secretary of State
  • George W. Bush [R] Former President
  • Elizabeth Warren [D] Senator
  • Barack Obama [D] President
  • Ron Paul [R] Former Representative
  • Bill Clinton [D] Former President
  • Ronald Reagan [R] Former President

Most despised:

  • Hillary Clinton [D] Former Secretary of State
  • George W. Bush [R] Former President
  • Barack Obama [D] President
  • John Boehner [R] Speaker, House of Representatives
  • Mitt Romney [R] Former Presidential nominee
  • Sarah Palin [R] Former Vice Presidential nominee
  • Paul Ryan [R] Representative

Source: Student Health 101 survey. 750 students responded to this question.

Students’ top leaders: dead or alive

  1. “My mother”
  2. Martin Luther King Jr.
  3. Barack Obama
  4. Jesus Christ
  5. Abraham Lincoln
  6. F.D. Roosevelt
  7. Mahatma Gandhi
  8. Nelson Mandela
  9. Ronald Reagan
  10. Bill Clinton
  11. “My father”

Source: Student Health 101 survey. 780 students responded to this question.

Which personal qualities do students rank highest for leadership?

  1. Confidence
  2. Communication
  3. Honesty
  4. Ability
  5. Organization
  6. Respect
  7. Decisions
  8. Good listener
  9. Trustworthy
  10. Empathy
  11. Patience
  12. Motivation
  13. Caring
  14. Reliable
  15. Open-minded

Student Health 101 survey, June 2014

How learning to lead can help you succeed

Get help or find out more

What is "leadership" and what makes a good leader?: Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute

Leadership characteristics: University of Oregon

Komives, S.R., Lucas, N., & McMahon, T.R. (2013). Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wagner, W. & Ostick, D.T. (2013). Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference. [Student workbook.] San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Maxwell, J.C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Neson.

Shankman, M.L. & Allen, S.J. (2008). Emotionally intelligent leadership: A guide for college students.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Amy Baldwin, EdD, is the director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of The Community College Experience, The First-Generation College Experience, and The College Experience, all published by Pearson.