Nice People Shouldn’t Finish Last

I consider myself a nice person (mostly). I have my occasional moments, but generally, I feel that I’m a good citizen of the world in terms of sympathizing/empathizing and wanting to help my fellow human beings. Mostly that’s localized in that I tend to help people I know rather than strangers on the street, but I’ve done that too.
This morning, I bumped into this article about how the students who are entering our top colleges are just not that nice. And yet, these are the students who will become (our not so nice) leaders. Mostly, the author points out it’s not just that these students aren’t nice, but also hypocritical:

sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to “do what is right.”

I can say that I haven’t seen this behavior in students at my institution, but sometimes in the faculty. They denounce class divisions, for example, but treat the housekeeper who cleans their office like a second-class citizen. I’m just saying . . .

I think it sucks that nice people finish last–as the saying goes–because I think the world could use more of them in leadership positions. Being nice doesn’t mean that you have to always, always do nice things. Sometimes, you have to fire people, say unpleasant things to people, or do something that might hurt someone. But the idea is that you do so for the greater good and that greater good isn’t yourself. It’s an ideal or an institution or whatever you’ve put your faith in. There’s integrity in what you do that follows certain principles. I don’t see this, as the author points out, in many of our current leaders and politicians. And what message is that sending to the rest of us? That this is how you get ahead–lie, cheat, and steal? Frankly, I don’t want to live in that kind of world.

Can you be a leader with no one to lead?

Ever since the Educause Management Institute, I’ve been thinking about this issue. I was one of a handful of people who didn’t currently have Manager or Director or some other “leadership” title at the conference. At first, I thought this would be a problem, that I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. It turns out I was wrong. I came away with a lot of good ideas about being a leader even if you have no one whose job it is to follow you. I have actually considered myself a leader for a while now. I think it started in grad school when I found myself serving as president of the Graduate Student Association during a very challenging time. We had a new chair, and, shortly after his tenure began, one of our faculty members was shot by one of our grad students. Now, I didn’t do anything heroic or stand at a podium and give some kind of grand speech. Instead, I had a lot of conversations–with faculty, with students, and with deans. We had group conversations. And eventually, we had a joint gathering of the faculty and students to kick off the new year and to try to move on from our tragedy.

As I think about where I am now, I think in similar terms. Geeky Girl asked me in the car yesterday if I wanted to be president of the United States. I laughed, and told her no. She asked me why. And I explained that I didn’t feel I had the experience or the money (the money probably being more of an issue, sadly). I don’t see myself as that kind of leader. I see myself in a quieter, smaller role, leading a smaller group of people. I see myself doing what I did as president of the GSA: having conversations, guiding people, offering advice, saying what I think to people in power. I hope in some small way that what I do inspires and motivates others. I see some evidence that it does. I see students pursuing technology careers as a consequence of their working with me. I ran a successful conference last week. I’ve written articles that have gotten a good response. I get regular emails from people around the country asking for advice. And I tend to forge ahead into new frontiers fairly regularly. I try to be generous with what I have to give–knowledge, information, assistance, connections. I believe that generosity is an important aspect of leadership, which flies in the face of some standard business practices which say that to be a leader, one must use people as stair steps on the way to the top.

I would still like the title to go with my vision of myself as a leader, but I realize now that the title doesn’t necessarily confer the qualities of leadership on someone. And, I can still be a leader without the title.