New Year, less "leadership"


A critique of StFX's buzz-word fetishization

There was a moment during December’s X-Ring Ceremony that I found ironic. Near the end of his speech, our university president celebrated that people from other universities, and indeed anyone outside of Antigonish, didn’t “get” StFX, and that he “wouldn’t want it any other way.” 

He was, of course, referring to the ring. And to be fair, “getting” the ring is probably difficult if you don’t go here. Leaving the ring aside, however, what I found ironic about this exaltation is that “getting” StFX as a whole is becoming increasingly difficult even for those of us in it. And, I will argue, this is not something the university administration should “want” in any way.   

I say this because we appear to have a sizeable collection of marketing words and phrases that we cannot define. The pinnacle of these words is undoubtedly “leadership”; there is an overwhelming emphasis on our students as leaders. Thanks to our “capacity for critical thinking, potential, and community,” by the end of our academic “journey” we are supposed to have reached what I can only assume is the trifecta of L’s: to “Live. Learn. Lead.” (off the website. You can’t ignore the consonance with the painfully generic “Live. Laugh. Love.”)

All words in quotations hereafter are either taken off of or were used in a speech at some point last semester. 

Indeed, “leadership” is everywhere. It makes its way into bulletin after bulletin on behalf of the President’s or AVP’s office. We hold leadership conferences. We are told that, after we graduate, our next step (our “duty” in fact) is to lead. We offer “leading” programs in Business and Nursing. We have a “centre for leadership” in the Schwartz building. Our generation is going to “lead the way” into the future.  

While I don’t discredit the good intentions of these advertisements, I want to suggest that the over-usage of leadership is dumbing down StFX’s rhetoric. Everyone is perfectly happy to expound leadership as a pillar of our university, but no one, to my knowledge, can offer a concise definition of it. Instead, leadership becomes the overarching buzz-word on the top of a hierarchy of similarly vague terms: “potential,” “passion,” “quality,” and of course “critical thinking.” 

In fact, if you think “critically” there is a logical impasse about wanting everyone to be a leader. To lead necessarily implies having followers who will be led by you. Thus, in a world where every individual is a leader (and therefore no one to follow) the concept of leadership collapses on itself. It sounds great to have a “leadership role,” but you’d likely get bored pretty fast if there’s no minions around to appreciate you.

That aside, our university’s accelerated obsession with leadership reduces what otherwise is a fairly loaded word to a flaky ideology. “Leadership” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1821 in a political context, and has gone through no less than eighteen connotations since; the most recent of these is in 1973, where leadership is defined as “the act of persuading people to do what they should have done in the first place” (which sounds mildly dictatorial, so I won’t suggest we use that one). My point in briefly outlining the term’s history is twofold: one, were we to challenge the President’s Office to define leadership, the amount of permutations to select from should make defining it a simple matter of selecting one; two – and given that there are so many permutations – creating a cult of leaders at StFX results in more obscurity than instruction. If I’m supposed to leave here and “lead” people, places, and things, what exactly does that mean? 

This becomes most problematic when the rhetoric is echoed by the students. In tossing around words like leadership and potential the university is teaching students that it is acceptable to do the same; it suggests, in the long term, that regurgitating these words in a cover letter or interview will land you a job. Maybe it would land you a job here, but many employers would expect you to get more creative than that. An institution cannot produce “critical thinkers” if it engenders a culture of buzz-word usage that skirts having to think critically about what those words mean. And that’s a problem. 

I’ll also leave this on the table: that last year, upon releasing the statistic that two hundred more frosh constituted the incoming class than the year previous, it was declared that StFX was welcoming “two hundred more leaders on campus!” We’ve gotten to the point where the students are leaders before they get the university education that is supposed to make them that way (that makes no sense!)  

Not forgetting, additionally, that not all those incoming students will even graduate. In fact, if you check our stats, Bachelor of Arts students (our ostensible critical thinkers) have the lowest graduation rate at 64%. Nursing has the highest (91.4%) – but hey, it is a “leading” program.  

Maybe this bothers me because I’m an English major and have a weird love of words. Maybe it’s normal these days to not want to avail ourselves of what approximate quarter of a million words there are in the OED. Maybe our fetishizing of leadership is emblematic of a whole-scale university trend (I hope not). 

I will answer the first of those “maybes” and verify that it’s not just me. I’ve had several conversations with other students and faculty who agree that the constant leadership rhetoric has both accelerated in the past year and is getting tiresome. My plan, as a matter of following up this article, is to do a street beats-style report whereby I will ask students on campus at random what “leadership” means to them. I will aim to get answers from students constituting all our academic faculties. In other words, we’ll see how well the university’s rhetoric is working. 

In the meantime, I’ll get back to my academic journey with my fellow leaders. Planning our “Live. Learn. Lead” phenomenon post-graduation is taxing stuff.