What Makes a Leader?

I love to take the train. Either I get to catch up on my sleep or on my reading. The other day on MetroNorth to NYC for a lunch meeting with reps from two southern colleges, I got to do the latter. And something that Thomas Friedman wrote about a golf game and leadership resonated.

At the end of the article, Friedman asked what message the Indian mystic, poet and yogi, known as Sadhguru, would give to young people?

The response from a colleague of Sadhguru’s is what resonated: “The best leaders ‘first work on themselves to achieve the necessary inner capabilities, because their actions impact millions of people. If you are personally transformed, then you will conduct yourself in a manner that is inclusive. If you are inclusive, then you will transform the communities you live in and thereby the world.'”

It just so happens that the next day I was out on Long Island at a brunch for a college that is all about leadership – Claremont McKenna College, which is one of the five Claremont Colleges located in, yes, Claremont, California, about an hour from Los Angeles. What’s Claremont’s obsession? “Leadership,” said Jeff Huang, CMC’s Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid, who is also a Professor of Philosophy at the college.

But, as Jeff mentioned, when he looks at applicants, he knows that leadership can take many forms, not just through becoming president of a school club or captain of a sports team. A leader could be the state robotics champion or a budding entrepreneur. Or more poignantly and even unexpectedly, it could even be the Korean American student, the oldest of four, whose dad was unemployed, alcoholic and abusive and who had to stand up to him on behalf of his other siblings. I cannot imagine a story that resonates more. That student already has become personally transformed, and has already conducted himself “in a manner that is inclusive.” I know this is a student who in some way will transform the world.

CMC isn’t the only school that promotes leadership. In fact, leadership has become an area of particular focus at a number of colleges, including the University of Richmond, the University of Delaware, the University of Denver, and the University of Tampa, just to name a few.

But whether you study leadership or not, it all starts with looking inside yourself. And I can’t think of a better time for that to happen than during the college search.