EDITOR’S NOTE: Marg Yaroslaski, a professor of communications and leadership at Dodge City Community College, is teaching in China for 3 months. She will be writing for the Daily Globe as part of her trip. Here is her 14th installment.
In class I told my students that being a leader was a decision — that a person must decide if they want to be a leader and then develop the skills needed to lead effectively. On their last test in a short answer question I asked them if they agreed with that claim – Is being a leader a decision? My Fort Hays State University students answered in an interesting variety of ways that show some of the challenges of teaching leadership in China.
Many students struggled with the idea all together. They answered that of course leaders must make decisions so they needed to be able to make decisions. These students understand the word leader, they understand the word decision. What they didn’t get quite right was the way I was combining those two words.
This is a challenge of both language and culture. My 240 Chinese students have very different English skills. Some struggle to understand at all, others have impeccable English. In between are many students who have been learning English for 11 years, but have little faith in their understanding. That lack of faith in their ability means they rely on classmates and translator apps instead of themselves.
Sadly that can actually make it less likely they will understand.
Sometimes students went on to say being a leader is not a choice but that learning the skills to be an effective leader is a choice. This reflects an interesting culture difference between my students and me.
The idea that leadership is a decision is tied deeply to the belief that leadership is not a position but an activity. When I teach leadership in the US I work hard to help those in my class understand that while positions give authority to certain people, leadership is an activity that can be chosen my anyone, anytime. That concept is a struggle for some of my students because they see leadership as the job of those in charge — the authorities. Whether that is in government or a company, leaders are the ones running the show. Leaders are chosen by wise people, you can’t simply choose to be in charge.
Some students did actually get the concept — that making a decision to lead was personal. These students were beginning to separate the idea of authority and leadership. They still did not have all the concepts clear yet, and they didn’t always have the language to explain it but their answers were evidence of the beginnings of this new idea taking root.
These students talked about deciding if they wanted to take on extra responsibility They discussed whether they wanted to take on the challenge of learning to communicate more effectively with all kinds of people. They also talked about the exciting possibilities that choosing to be leaders offered them as they continued to learn and grow through accepting leadership’s challenges. Sometimes these students questioned their ability. They said things like "I have always been a shy boy, but maybe if I work hard I learn how to lead."
A few students understood the idea of leadership being a choice and clearly indicated they had no desire to lead. These students acknowledged the work leadership takes and were clear they were not interested in that kind of effort. They were quite content waiting for decisions to be made and then doing what people told them. For them not being a leader seems like a much safer and easier decision.
If being a leader is truly a choice then there will always be people who choose not to lead.
In the States, when we first start studying leadership, we often assume it is tightly linked to power and charisma. However, once we begin to dig into many styles of leadership, it is easier for my Dodge City Community College students to distinguish between leadership and authority. It is easier for my American students to understand that charisma and power may be present in some leaders, but that leaders can lead without it. In our classes at DCCC we focus on the helping students improve their communication skills, their understanding of human behavior and strengthen their ability to think globally. Those skills are good for any person, but if that person decides to be a leader, those skills become essential.