Leadership as Defined by Michelle Obama

A couple weeks ago, I was working on a summer assignment for the students in the leadership seminar class I’ll be teaching this year. Wanting them to think about what leadership means to them without explicitly asking them that question, I was writing questions about people and characters in popular culture and in their summer reading. I was looking for a question or topic related to politics when I remembered Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

I watched the speech again, anticipating asking my students if (and how) she was acting as a leader at that moment, when something else about it struck me. If you listen closely, you can hear Mrs. Obama not just be a leader but offer her personal definition of leadership. Consider the following:

“Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace, the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House.”

“…doing the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference in their lives.”

“She never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

“You can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well informed.”

“Someone who’s life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed. And we give back even when we’re struggling ourselves because we know that there is always someone worse off.”

In her own words, Mrs. Obama is defining what a leader is to her. Sure, she could have just used the buzz words we so often use in talking about leadership – “servant leader,” “ethical leader,” “clear sense of purpose” – but she didn’t. She stuck to her own words, but the picture she painted is clear, simple, and unmistakeable.

Two things occurred to me about this. First, what a great definition this is. As teachers, coaches, and dorm parents, who among us wouldn’t want a team captain, dormitory prefect, or student in class who “never buckles under pressure,” doesn’t “chase fame and fortune” for himself or herself, and does “the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference” in the lives of his or her peers?

Second, I wonder how it would go if we asked our students to write definitions of leadership that are just this simple, clear, and direct? What if we did it before it was time to choose team captains or student government representatives? How would school look if students first decided what leadership was to them, and then looked for those who most closely met those ideals?

And, to extend Mrs. Obama’s argument to its logical conclusion, what if students held their peers to these self-defined standards and let them know when they had let us down, just like people let their political representatives know every day? How would student leadership, and how would school, look then?

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