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Leadership Development: A Continual Process

By Michael D. Imperato, Resident Director, La Salle University

"Leaders are like eagles - they don't flock ... you find them one at a time." – Anonymous

Leadership development is often designed for groups such as RAs, RHA members, and the top percentage of student leaders on a campus in order to further develop their current skill set. Frequently the “push” a student needs to take the next step as a leader comes from one person. This applies to students who have not yet taken that first step, emerging leaders, students who are finding their role on a campus or established leaders. The intentional development of leaders is a yearlong, on-going process that can be integrated into our daily activities.

The General Student Population

Our efforts as residence life/student affairs professionals are commonly said to focus on the top five percent (those we hire as RAs or Orientation facilitators) and the end five percent (those we meet at 3am and again the next day for a judicial hearing) within the spectrum of student leadership. The remaining 90 percent can be the most challenging to reach but often have untapped potential. Complaints about the institution or policies can often be voiced from within this group but go unnoticed or staff members fix the problem for the student instead of with the student (teaching them how to do it for themselves). In responding to complaints, challenging the student to bring it to RHA or the campus student government rather than fixing the problem, can have a greater impact. The student could discontinue voicing the concern but hopefully will pursue the resolution of the issue. Learning the process to create positive change is an outcome that will stay with the student. In addition, they will be more likely to take action in the future rather than being a passive member of the community.

What about the student that is vocal and has an “edge” but does not yet have refined skills? A straightforward invitation or challenge to join an organization or apply to be an RA can be the most effective method. The student reaction is often that of being surprised followed with questioning about the opportunity. Your one question or invitation could be the push the student was waiting for (without realizing it).

Emerging Leaders

This group of students can often be the easiest from which to capture their attention. The student that takes the initiative to put up signs or to introduce him/herself to everyone in the community stands out as a candidate for leadership positions. The process for recruiting these individuals can be ongoing and not limited to the time before RA selection or RHA elections. Established student leaders can often play a larger role than professional staff in motivating potential or newly established leaders. As an organization advisor, conversations with the executive board about paying attention to students that appear interested but have not yet volunteered can help develop the student-mentoring role. If the established student leaders pull someone aside before a meeting and ask him/her to chair a committee or take charge of a program, this may be the starting point for that student’s involvement.

Leaders Finding Their Role

Emerging leaders frequently move into the stage of finding their role on campus. This can be a chaotic process for the student. This can include a period of time when the student joins more organizations and takes on more responsibilities than he/she has time in the week. Our role can be to challenge the student to examine the current responsibilities and determine the reality of managing it effectively. In addition, reminding the student of the commitment needed to academics, which at times may be pushed aside. If a student does not succeed academically, his/her involvement in an organization will most likely be in jeopardy due to policies regarding academic standing. In addition, the experiences gained from involvement outside the classroom will be negligible without the degree obtained in the classroom. Our colleagues in areas such as Career Services or Student Activities can be valuable resources in collaborating with the student to determine a level of involvement that will meet his/her future goals.

Established Leaders

Throughout our professional careers we will have the privilege to work with a range of established student leaders who will have an impact on the students and life of the institution. Other than conferences and staff developments, does our role decrease with established leaders? The role could shift to focus on that leader’s impact on others and his/her own personal goals beyond their current leadership responsibilities. In terms of the leader’s impact on others, this is an opportunity to educate the leader about his/her role in the development of new leaders. This role ranges from identifying new leaders, challenging the emerging ones, and recruiting students into formal roles, etc. For example, this can be built into expectations or even the job description of RAs, expanding to a yearlong effort from the more finite time period of RA selection. For organization executive boards, working with them to recruit and prepare the new board beginning in September rather than following the elections in May could have a lasting effect on the students and the organization.

The other focus can be on those students who will be graduating and moving into the next phase of their lives. Has that second-year RA considered being a Residence Hall Director? This role is often filled by former RAs but is not the only option for students interested in student affairs. Has the RHA member that excelled in programming explored a career as a university Programming Coordinator? What goals does the pre-med RA have as a medical specialty? Could a career as a Student Health Services Medical Consultant or the Athletic Team Trainer be part of the future?

Leadership Throughout the Year

Intentionally incorporating leadership development into judicial hearings, individual conversations, organization meetings, performance evaluations, and actions throughout the year will contribute to building and strengthening the residential or campus community. Focusing on the individual student in these ways can only strengthen our students and communities, so make the challenge on your campus!

About the Author

Michael is a third-year Resident Director within the Community Development unit at La Salle University. He will be completing his Masters of Business Administration degree at the end of this year. While at La Salle, Michael has focused on supervision and team supervision, leadership development, and Leading Strong Communities, an empowering leadership model for student development and community building.

Any questions or feedback/suggestions can be submitted to the author at imperato@lasalle.edu.