Reclaiming Leadership

Tue, 2014-02-25 09:41 am

There is no shortage of leaders among Grinnell’s alumni. Plenty have risen to what most would consider lofty leadership positions in business, finance, and politics. Grinnellians also are leaders in the arts, academia, technology, and social reforms. Despite this, a 2008 on-campus study showed that just more than 50 percent of students identified themselves as leaders at Grinnell. Two senior women, shocked by the contrast between this study result and their own experiences on campus, are exploring why Grinnellians do not label themselves as leaders.

The Grinnell+ Leadership Program, initiated by Remy Ferber ’14 and Jennelle Nystrom ’14, has begun a series of all-campus discussions about how Grinnellians assert themselves as leaders. Ferber and Nystrom partnered with the Student Government Association and the College’s libraries to distribute 50 copies of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg to students nominated by faculty and staff as standout leaders on campus. Over winter break, the students read the book and commented about it online at the Grinnell+ Leadership Program’s website.

The program came about after Ferber and Nystrom separately read Lean In and had similar, separate conversations with trustee Patricia Jipp Finkelman ’80 about the lack of a forum for talking about leadership on campus. Lean In examines a slow-down in women’s success in obtaining leadership positions in government and industry, and possible solutions, but the Grinnell discussions are broader.

In the first all-campus meeting of the Grinnell+ Leadership Program, there was a unanimous consensus that students feel supported to assert themselves as leaders, but don’t feel comfortable identifying themselves as leaders. Although many Grinnellians are leaders, and are easily recognized as such by their classmates, there is a reluctance to identify oneself as a leader on campus.

Although many Grinnellians want to effect positive change, they tend to eschew what they view as traditional leadership. Through conversation with students across the years, Ferber and Nystrom have observed the following, which they documented on their blog: Students draw a line between labeled and holistic leadership and they feel more comfortable with the latter. Labeled leadership often carries with it a vulnerability to criticism and an uncomfortable identification of oneself as separate from one’s peers. Many students avoid such overt leadership roles out of humility or to avoid the stigma of ‘resume-building,’ which many Grinnell students perceive as being incongruous with the spirit of a liberal arts education.

Through the Grinnell+ Leadership Program, Ferber and Nystrom are restarting this conversation about the nature of leadership and have begun inviting alumni to take part in the discussion.

In an effort to make the program sustainable, Nystrom and Ferber will encourage the group to read a new book on leadership each year during winter break. They hope to continue stimulating discussion among students and alumni. Grinnell is a place where students take ownership of their education and leadership is a major aspect of that. It’s just a matter of figuring out how leadership is pursued at the College.