Rethinking Leadership After Being an RA

I sat down at my computer to work on a class assignment. Instead I began reading Hack Library School and got inspired by the recent post on Rethinking Leadership in Librarianship. Paul Lai asked his readers the following: “How can library students and librarians shape the world of librarianship (and indeed the entire world beyond) without resorting to the idea of leadership?” I left a comment, but feelings began bubbling up… so here is a post.

Leadership can be an incredibly funny thing. Most people measure it by a tangible record of accomplishments in trophies, certificates, and landslide victories. When you nearly miss winning an opportunity, or don’t receive the award you want, it can feel like you’re failing. This is what I did. I have often used the word “leader” to define myself. In high school I led group projects and was the school newspaper’s editor-in-chief. In my junior year college I was President of three student clubs and leading a suicide prevention service team. I thought I was an awesome leader, so I ran for President of my Honors program. I lost. It was by a small amount of votes, but it felt like failure.

Warning: Things are going to get whiney, but stay with me. At the beginning of my senior year I began struggling as graduation approached. I had came in as a typical Honors student with a checklist of accomplishments, but hadn’t achieve them. I wasn’t going to be Honors President or write a thesis or get a Fulbright, I hadn’t even run away to Paris to study abroad, and I knew I wasn’t going to apply to MFA of PhD programs. I still maintained my self-centered definition of leadership as accomplishments.

Then the most amazing group of college freshmen happened to me.

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For my final year of college, I was a Resident Assistant (RA) to forty-two Honors freshmen. FGCU Housing and Residence Life likes to call the position of an RA “the most important student leadership position on campus.” Traditional leadership positions, for example Student Government, affect students but do not impact the same way. RAs reach the most students on a personal level. It is a mesh of being a disciplinarian, adviser, best friend, tutor, parent, and even a janitor.

By the time I got to graduation, I was satisfied and felt extremely lucky. For the small Honors graduation our Honors Director didn’t list the awards I received, instead he told stories. Stories about my defiance from day 1, what my residents told him, friends who repeated advice, reminders of inspiration that I planted in other leaders. Some of these stories I don’t even remember happening. I learned leadership can also be measured by how many people are positively affected by you, if you can show them how capable they are, if they can hold their own and especially if they do more amazing work once you leave.

I have graduated, and moved 300 miles away. When Fall 2012 got into full swing I began to witness through the Facebook lens how amazing my friends and former residents are. The people who told me “I don’t know what I am going to do without you!” are, of course, just fine. They are amazing, in fact. Sophomores are showing leadership that I’ve rarely seen, and friends rose to the occasion and bloomed into great Presidents and Vice Presidents of my former organizations. I miss them, and am so proud. I still get calls for advice, rushed IMs on Facebook about paper formatting, and the occasional Skype chat to work through a club’s gameplan. Some of them are even doing a better job than I did. Isn’t that we all should want as leaders? To cultivate followers that are excited, passionate, and independent that they create something even better?

I originally posted and include this classic TED video on leadership. However, the next day I discovered the following perfect video. This video shows what leadership also can be. It is the kind of leadership RAs are and I believe most librarians are. What is your lollipop moment?

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