Dorky Summer Camp
I call upon MIT to rename the Freshman Leadership Program more accurately. Calling it the "Freshman Dorky Summer Camp Activities Program" ought to suffice. Some people have queer ideas about what leadership means these days.
Leadership is about many things. I once attended a very traditional leadership training program. Forty-eight young men spent a week in the woods, sleeping in leaky tents, preparing three meals per day on camping stoves, and maintaining the mud-slimed trails around their campsites.
Of course, that part of the experience wasn't about learning leadership, and there was no premise that it was. But every day, the whole camp assembled in an old, rickety lodge, where we heard lectures on the "eleven skills of leadership." With only one exception, these lectures came from crusty old men. Under other circumstances, these figures might not inspire respect from teen-age males, but they all slept in the same rain and ate the same food as we did, and they had all been teaching these skills for years, often longer than we had been alive.
The self-selected students who attend FLP missed out on such seemly dull, but genuinely important, skills as representation, effective teaching, and evaluating others' work. These and the other skills were identified over many years as crucial to the ability to lead other people. By replacing the accepted techniques of leadership with simplistic confidence-building exercises, FLP trains possible leaders with plenty of self-importance and a paucity of useful skills.
The last lecture at the leadership training I attended was the only one given by one of the recent graduates, a young man only two years older than I. The reason for the change in format was the subject matter - the last and most important of those eleven leadership skills, setting the example. Our teacher began the lecture wearing headphones and sitting in a lawn chair. As his speech progressed, he stood up, removed the headphones, and took off his casual outer-garments, revealing tidy and formal attire underneath. With every change, he commanded more respect from his audience; by the time he finished, he held our rapt attention.
The lesson was clear. People like a superior with a sense of humor, but nobody respects silliness in a leader. Unfortunately, this lesson was clearly lost on the organizers and attendees of FLP. In fact, the program appears to be sending the exact opposite message, that silliness is a useful attribute for leaders. This is truly unfortunate for both the potential leaders and the potentially led. I doubt that many people gain confidence in their leaders when they see them perform the FLP-inspired "Banana Dance."
Perhaps the program provides some useful services to the participants and the community. Many participants trumpet it as building community and providing a sense of unity among these freshmen, first meeting one-another and arriving in a totally new environment.
Building a sense of unity can certainly be a good thing, but having it masquerade as leadership is disgraceful. Last year, the FLP program produced a truckload of smarmy freshmen, who desperately believed that they knew far better than anybody else what true leadership meant. This year, it's too early to judge whether the same attitude permeates the newest batch of FLP graduates; the freshmen class council elections ought to provide a good measure.
The problems with FLP are simple by-products of our culture today. Many people would like to think that the best way to lead is to be as natural as possible. That is no more the case now than it has ever been; nor will leaders ever succeed by freeing their inner child. The very essence of being a leader consists of being different - separate - from other people. "It's lonely at the top" - now and forevermore. In his children's classic, The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis explains the true nature of leadership; the king must be the most cheerful in hard times and the most thankful for meager fare.
I hope that the freshmen who attended FLP gained something from the experience, since they probably gained no useful leadership skills. Perhaps in the future, MIT will teach leadership classes with some more established merit.