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What Does Leadership Mean for Students?

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Student stressed in library | Source:

What is Student Leadership? Is it an idea? A symbol of student empowerment and excellence? A way for students to step up and represent their school? Or is it simply a group of ambitious students who could be more accurately described as party planners and over-achievers.

Well, simply put, it depends. Leadership is a hard concept to define even among a variety of fields. In business, it could refer to the leading company in a market, the CEO of a company, or an idea that sprouts large change in an industry. In politics, it can refer to a large group of people in power, it could refer to an individual or even a policy. The idea of leadership is polysemous, something that can span over multiple definitions, and yet, all humans understand it. Leadership can not truly be defined, as the world has all kinds of leaders: large and small, smart and not-so-smart, corrupt and righteous. The point is, leadership is not something that should be put in a box, it's something that should grow and adapt to the leader. But for many students, whether it be through student council or academics themselves, this doesn’t seem like the case.

Across the world, the definition of a model student leader has remained stagnant: solely fitting under three categories: academics, sports, and councils. If you want to be a leader in your school or recognized by your teachers, you are told to either focus on your academics and achieve top marks, or go into sports and excel there. Although it may not be evident as much in certain schools, these three areas of focus are highly pushed on students if they want to "succeed".

The Definition of Leadership

For as long as schools have existed, so have student leaders. Sure, they may have not been as prevalent due to the values of the time, but schools have always been synonymous with student leadership. Since the first modern schools opened in Ancient Egypt, many things have changed in the education system. Even over the last century, schools have progressed in every sense; beginning to value growth over performance. Still, despite being present for numerous years, what is and what isn’t recognized as student leadership by teachers and administrators, has stayed the same. If you don’t excel in either academics, sports, or council, you will most likely struggle to be recognized by your teachers.

Student leadership, like other forms of leadership, is something that spans over multiple definitions. To look for student leadership, however, we must first look at how leadership is defined. Nonetheless, this is no simple task.

Leadership is something that is much easier to understand by its characteristics than by its definition, but that doesn’t stop dictionaries from trying to. Therefore, most of these dictionaries are purposefully vague or imprecise. Take Google’s dictionary for example. A simple google search can lead you to a rabbit hole of unclear, loose, or downright fickle results that leave you with more questions than answers. Definitions like “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”, “the state or position of being a leader”, and “the leaders of an organization, country, etc.” lead us to further questions like, “what is a leader?” and, “what is considered leading?”

Definition of Leadership | Source:

This theme isn’t reserved solely for Google’s dictionary; other more credible dictionaries seem to follow a similar tone. For instance, look at Merriam Webster’s dictionary. Under their site, they define leadership as simply the “capacity to lead”. According to ‘’, the leading dictionary on the internet, leadership is purely the “ability to lead”.

Leadership is something that grows and adapts to the leader. And with the millions of diverse leaders in the world, it wouldn’t be fair to impose restrictions on who they are. This trend that we find throughout these dictionaries’ definitions of leadership, allows us to fill in what they leave out. It doesn’t just include those in the limelight, but also includes those not seen as leaders by traditional standards; people leading behind the scenes who are seldom recognized.

What is Student Leadership?

Seeing how vague definitions of leadership seemed to be, it would make sense that “student leadership” should be similar. However, this is not the case. Among most of John Knox's upcoming Student Council, definitions seem to follow a single tone. For Kyrstal Herfst, the Vice-Team Leader of the upcoming student council, student leadership means " connecting with one’s fellow students in order to create a unique and enjoyable year for everyone." Grace Schouten, the former Media Coordinator and current Secretary of the student council said that student leadership to her, "finds its roots in humility and an openness to working with the entire school, not just the student council." Although these answers are not surprising (those on the student council would define student leadership based on their experience in student council), it is noteworthy that even among student leaders, the idea of student leadership seems to fit solely under the council.

Student council hard at work | Source:

However seemingly insignificant, defining student leadership solely under the guise of the student council is damaging to students. It creates a narrative that only those who do exceptionally well in academics, sports, and council should be recognized in their schools as leaders. This underlying agreement forces pressure onto students to allocate their time into things they may not be skilled or interested in, taking time away from the things they are truly passionate about. With continual pressure for students to academically or athletically succeed, students who want to be leaders have to abandon their other interests if they want to be in the limelight.

What Student Leadership Could Be

Let’s imagine for a second that you are a 9th-grade student. You’re halfway through your school year and the night before classes start again you spend hours and hours sewing clothes for your own fashion brand that you’ve been working on for months. After a long weekend of sewing and snipping, you decide that you want to show your final product to your favourite teacher. The next day, you bring your final product to them with high hopes, struggling to keep your excitement under control. But just as the moment leading up to it passes, your excitement is met with “oh that’s cool, it would be great if you’d apply that effort towards your school work”, as your teacher walks away to talk to someone more in line with their idea of “student leadership”. Although this scenario may not apply for all students across the country, change a few things in the story and for many students, this story really sinks in.

For the longest time, the model student leader in the eyes of teachers and other administrators have belonged to one or more of these three categories: academics, athletics, or council. Excelling even one of these focus points can lead you to large-found success in high school. However, excelling in one category can lead to detrimental effects on others. In a study by the University of Albany, New York, they found that student-athletes achieved, on average, 8% worse in terms of GPA (2.379 GPA for student-athletes vs. 2.681 GPA for regular students, on average). If they want to be recognized as leaders, not only do students have pressure to abandon passions outside of these categories but those inside these categories in order to maintain excellence in just one.

So what can we do? It’s simple. We apply the same standards of other forms of leadership on student leadership. Modern dictionaries tell us that leadership is something that can’t truly be defined. Sure, you can try to, using vague or imprecise vocabulary. However, once again, leadership is something that grows and adapts to the leader.

The concept of student leadership stands as one of the most valuable characteristics that one could demonstrate as youth within our community. The ability to manage and direct people and information for a positive result is the common understanding of a leader; however, in actuality, true and matured student leadership stands beyond the basic principles of the depicted job and its formalities.” - Samuel Tso, JKCS Team Leader

It’s time for reform. To rethink how we encourage students to be leaders. Instead of pressuring students to focus on traditional leadership roles, let them pursue their passions. This is not to discourage leaders whose passions do follow under these categories, but to treat all distinction as the same. Whether they’re passionate about business and starting their own fashion brand, music and producing their own beats, or baking and starting their own baked goods stand; excellence in these areas should also be seen as it truly is: leadership.

Lead on!

As a new generation of starry-eyed students enters the new and exciting world of high school, it is our only hope that these new groups of student leaders will not be restricted to certain categories of excellence. Instead, it is up to us to realize an environment where excellence of any kind can finally be recognized as leadership.

To the teachers, administrators and those involved behind the scenes, it is your duty to make sure that it is known to students that leadership will not be restricted to the commonly expected categories of athletics, academics, or student council. To the students, classmates, and current leaders who do happen to follow under these categories of leadership, it is your responsibility to use the power you have now, to vindicate those not easily seen.

Finally to the student leader who doesn’t feel seen, to the kid who’s mixing and producing their own beats, starting their own clothing business or even the kid volunteering at their local church/NPO: your time in the limelight will come, lead on.

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