Follow the Leader

Carolyn Foster Segal is less than impressed with the promise of her college and many others to teach "leadership."

December 1, 2008

My college makes leaders. Or at least it will just as soon as our new mission statement goes into effect. The draft of the new mission statement leaves no doubt about this: The word “leadership” appears twice, in the first two sentences, followed by “leader” in the third sentence.

The new mission statement will go into effect as soon as the faculty, staff, students, and trustees approve the following documents: “Core Focus Areas,” “Basic Principles of the Core Focus Areas,” “Strategic Plan I,” “Strategic Plans II through XXII,” and the new global menu for the dining hall.

At this time, in the interest of moving quickly on the implementation of the new mission statement, the ad hoc strategic document committee has decided not to create additional documents outlining “Basic Values,” “Core Values,” and directions for what to do should a snowstorm necessitate closing the college for a day and/or evening; the committee, however, reserves the right to create such documents in the future, should the points of contention regarding the phrasing of the new mission statement, along with the phrasing of all other documents, present, future, and past, prove to be irresoluble. And certainly we may find that it is in the best interest of all parties involved to return to a discussion about the need for such documents -- particularly if we have the snowstorm that’s predicted -- once we have completed our vision statement. But I am getting ahead of myself. First things first.

In order to the make the transition process to the new mission statement as smooth as possible, and to allow adequate time for discussion, all courses scheduled to meet between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday have been canceled for the spring semester. Instead, there will be a series of summit meetings (formerly known as workshops. Although workshops do carry the connotation of work, there can only be one workshop leader).

According to our old, soon-to-be-if-not-already-obsolete mission statement, we made critical thinkers. At least that was the plan. Repeated surveys, along with assessments of final exam scores, suggested, however, that such a mission was impractical and downright difficult to achieve. Besides, leadership has several advantages as a marketing strategy. For example, being a leader is much more visible than being a thinker. And who wants to be a follower? Let those few sorry individuals who want to be mere followers go to another college -- if they can find one that doesn’t have leadership in the mission statement.

We had hoped to have our new mission statement up and running by now -- before any more colleges beat us to it. However, being a leader in academe requires great risk-taking and innovation and is pretty tricky. Plus the mission statement sub-committee ran into some problems with a few other phrases -- things like global awareness, civic engagement (versus global engagement and civic awareness), and environmental concern (should we go for the leader-like “sustainability” or the friendlier “going green”? And will we have to create new environmental courses or can we get by with our usual Earth Day Celebration and signs in the computer labs warning about using too much paper)? And there was another problem as well: No one on the mission statement committee wanted to be the chair.

Now, even though I have experience writing mission statements, and have, in fact, even written an essay on the subject of mission statements, making me an expert -- or a sort of leader -- in the area of mission statements, I was not selected for the current mission-statement subcommittee. This is possibly due to a question I raised at a special pre-mission-statement-planning summit: If everyone wants to be a leader, isn’t that anarchy?


Carolyn Foster Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.


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