Student Leadership at Duke


by Deborah Hackney, Associate Director, Leadership Development and Social Action

Leadership can occur and even thrive without a title or position.

That's what students told us after a recent leadership program we hosted. For many, this was an epiphany that eradicated previously held notions. Rather than being in the front initiating and creating plans, students boldly reported that they understood how they could also make a difference through influence and steady participation with others toward a collective vision.

Leading without the requirement of formal position or title is a main tenet of our leadership framework. We posit that as citizens of Duke, Durham and the world, our abilities to make positive change can happen within or outside of a role.

Our team delighted in seeing these results. “Whew, they are finally getting it,” we congratulated ourselves. And yet, this is only step 1.  The other complexities of character, collaboration, citizenship and making change require us to speak up and act wherever we are in groups, organizations, teams, or even as an individual.

What is it about our culture—and especially the student leadership culture—that insists upon titles? It seems that contribution without presidential title, credentials or snappy bullet points on a resume are perceived to have no worth.  Further, we often carry many titles but cannot articulate the outcomes of them. Perhaps this is about power, but that’s the subject of a future post.

How do we move past this culture of credentials and just get down to the often messy and usually inglorious work of making good things happen?

Some new initiatives guide students to action. First, nearly 40 first-year students attended the inaugural Duke Authenticity Project in February. They explored their values through Duke CAPS Director Kelly Crace’s amazing tool, the Life Values Inventory. Professor Carl Nordgren helped students think about how their values create their story in his session, Creative Innovation. Student Affairs professionals Kim McCrae and Tyrone Jean linked values to personal identity. Dean Sue Wasiolek and Professor Michael Gustafson challenged participants see how values relate to career choices and vocation. How we show up to lead—with or without a title—impacts our interactions with people and our ultimate success.

In the Fall, nearly 50 undergraduates attended Duke’s session of the LeaderShape Institute. The vision of LeaderShape is a just, caring, thriving world where all people live and lead with integrity and have a healthy disregard for the impossible, whether in campus clubs, local and civic organizations, service initiatives, faith-based communities, residential houses, families, vocations and social groups. (Participants Lindsey Huth, Aidasani and Ciera Price write about their LeaderShape experience.)

We are excited to build on these and other experiences in the Fall with the opening of the Leadership Development and Social Action Center in the Bryan Center. A part of University Center Activities and Events (UCAE), the new Center will house our staff, the Duke Partnership for Service and LAUNCH, a collaborative initiative with UCAE Student Involvement. Together, we see our role as promoting and connecting the myriad leadership learning and service opportunities on campus, as well as presenting our own initiatives. As a hub of student service organizations, involvement opportunities, and leadership resources for students and student groups on campus, the Center will be a resource for students engaged in leadership and contribution, no matter their seat at the table. Further, we look to be glue—back to that messy work of bringing communities together for a collective vision.

We will continue to publish The Leadership at Duke Guidebook, a comprehensive listing and roadmap of leadership learning opportunities on campus, both inside and outside the classroom.  To model the collaborative work of a collective vision, the Leadership Educators Collaborative will further connect leadership learning and practice on campus. Our goal is an integrative and comprehensive effort across the University.

This group continues to grapple with important questions about student leadership; what questions would you add to theirs? We will keep asking questions and answering them for the calling of our Duke mission: knowledge in service to society.