9 Ways to Maximize Your College Leadership Experience

I’m often asked which colleges are the best for “leadership.” The short answer is “most will do just fine.” As with most of life, it’s what you make of it. College is a great place to grow as a leader.

Much of your leadership learning will come from peripheral aspects of the college experience. Being involved. Living with strangers. Leading without authority. Getting along in diverse groups. Projects with assigned (potentially lazy) teams. Live it deeply. Make mistakes. Try new approaches. Keep leading and learning.

This post is for my son, Ben, and other young leaders graduating high school and heading to college. I’ve collected advice from seasoned leaders across the globe. If you aren’t headed to college, please comment with your advice, and pass the post along to an aspiring young leader.

Annette Schmeling, VP of Student Development at University of Dayton, suggests making a specific plan.

  • Focus first on Academic Success
  • Identify 3-5 “activities outside the classroom” to be involved in. List the activities, explain why they are important to you
  • Make connections with the career services office and learn about internships and professional development opportunities starting the freshmen year
  • Learn how to utilize social media tools to engage with others. Start early to establish a purpose-fueled online reputation

9 Ways to Learn Leadership at College (advice from the online “village”)

1. Solve Problems

Find something your passionate about and work to improve it. Dan Rockwell suggests, “gathering together” with other students to solve problems.

2. Take Risks

Get comfortable with discomfort. Don’t jump out of the 2nd story classroom (like my friend did at Wake Forest he’s stupid, but fine), but do wise things that scare you. Will Lukang says, “take risks and push yourself out of your comfort zone.” Mario Marquez shares, “Look for the uncomfortable and controversial situations, the hot potatoes that the majority will stay away from.”

3. Learn who you are

You will do great things, and many silly ones. Learn from it all. Keep reflecting on, and refining, your values. Learn to lead and lead to learn. And as Alaska Chick says, “Walk the talk and do what you say.”

4. Volunteer

The most consistent advice I received is “volunteer.” Get involved. Spend time in the community.

“Get involved in the college’s outreach programs. Most colleges have programs to tutor high school students who are not passing graduation exams, community clean-up programs, political activist groups, debate groups, open theater programs get involved. Being in college can be about so much more than just getting a degree for what’s next.”

5. Build a Network

Hang out with all kinds of people. Find your niches, but don’t limit yourself. That weird guy may be up to something fantastic. It’s great to build a network of diverse communities. Network extensively through social media and make genuine connections. Mike Henry, Sr. suggests, “select friends carefully.”

“Grow your leadership skills in the place that sparks your passion – opportunities are everywhere. If you don’t feel the click, keep exploring until you do.”

6. Learn Extra

Attend the free lectures. Take crazy courses unrelated to your major. Listen with your heart. Take a full course load. Stay up late talking with your friends about what they are learning. Donald George suggests, “develop a variety of leadership skills and apply the most appropriate approach to fit that specific situation.”

7. Find Mentors

Invest in getting to know your professors. I have a few lifelong mentors (now friends) that began as professors. Help them with their research. Drink coffee with them. You will be amazed at the opportunities that can emerge. Also find mentors in the community and in areas of interest. Connect with mentors across all walks of life.

“Find leaders you look up to and ask them to mentor you. Serve on their teams so as to watch, observe, and learn. Work hard, build good relationships, and after your studies are done, volunteer your heart out.”

8. Learn Think, Write and Speak

Take classes that challenge you to organize and articulate your point of view. Take lots of writing and speaking classes. Consider an improv or other theater class. Get really comfortable in front of people. If you hate public speaking, keep taking classes until you don’t.

9. Work Hard

Dan McCarthy shared a combination of quotes from Chuck Yeager and Vince Lombardi: “There’s no such thing as a natural-born leader. All great leaders got that way from hard work, not from some endowed gift. Thank goodness. Don’t cheat yourself with the easy way out. Or as Pop Pop says:

“I still endorse the advice from the talk “What college is and what it isn’t ” I heard in my senior year of high school in 1959 from the vice president of Rensselaer Polytechnic.
His point: you need to have a goal that motivates you, and apply yourself passionately in pursuing the goal. It does not matter if you change your goal later on, you probably will, several times. What matters is that you do the best you can with what you are working toward at any given time. I think that advice holds up, in college and after. The connection to leadership? If you know where you are going and give it your all, you will find folks will follow your lead.”

@theteapixie summarizes it well.

@LetsGrowLeaders Get involved. Be an example worth emulating. Be engaged. Be interested. Be active. Make face-2-face happen.”

 Know someone graduating and headed to college? A Free Subscription to Let’s Grow Leaders makes a wonderful gift for Grads.. and Dads)