5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader

May 9, 2013


There’s a movie that came out in 2010 with Nicholas Cage called “Kick-Ass.” It’s basically a story of a nerdy high school kid and comic book fan named Dave Lizewski that gets robbed. Eventually, he decides to become a superhero named “Kick-Ass” to fight crime throughout the city without any superpowers or special training. Obviously it’s a fantastic and funny story, but it’s the story of an ordinary kid that creates his own destiny by becoming a homegrown superhero. It’s the story of someone that can do great things and influence others by being “kickass.”

As student leaders, there are many things that you can and should do to be truly kickass.

Secret #1: Create the change that you want to see. Mahatma Ghandi is credited with saying, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” The concept is very simple, but yet very profound, particularly on a college campus. This essentially means that if there’s something you don’t like, change it! If there’s something you would like to see, create it!

If you don’t like the clubs that are offered, create a new one. If you don’t like something on campus, participate in or create a committee to research and suggest new ideas and options. Want to participate in a new campus-wide initiative or project? Create a proposal and approach administrators and faculty to see if they can support you.

As students, you have more power than you think you do. You are the reason why colleges and universities exist, and the reason why people like me have a career. Wield that power to make a difference not only in your life, but the lives of others, and the quality of the academic and student life experience here on campus.

Be a kickass leader by creating the change you want to see.

Secret #2: Stand out from others. Over the past 15 years, I have supervised hundreds of student employees across the country at five different colleges and universities. When I recruit and interview, I always ask, “What are you involved with on campus, and what have you done?”

I always hear, “Well…I am the president of the biology club … and a representative on student government …” That’s great…but what did you do? What have you influenced? What have you changed? What have you created? Leadership isn’t merely a grocery list of activities on a co-curricular transcript or resume. Leadership is about enacting change and leaving a legacy.

Also, quantify your experiences. Set goals, and upon achieving those goals use statements on your resume and in interviews such as, “I helped to raise $10,000 for a local charity … We served over 500 meals at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving … I presented at a regional conference to over 100 session attendees …” and other impressive accomplishments.

Stand out from others. It’s easy to be great when others are mediocre.

Be a kickass leader by standing out from others.

Secret #3: Read about and become an expert on leadership. Your education doesn’t stop when you graduate from college. As someone looking to get a job after graduation, you need to be able to communicate that you know about your career field and can bring actual value to their organization. You can’t be an innovator and a true leader if you don’t know what’s occurring around you.

Take the time and spend the money to join and participate in professional organizations. Read their publications. Use social media to connect with others in your field from around the globe. Subscribe to blogs, follow industry leaders on Twitter, and attend the multitude of free webinars that are presented every day on almost any topic you can imagine. Books and articles on leadership and supervising people are published every day. If you’re not constantly ahead of the curve, others will be and inevitably will be more marketable.

Be a kickass leader by reading about and becoming an expert on leadership.

Secret #4: Seek out a quality mentor. A mentor can be a professor, a staff member, a club or organization advisor, a spiritual leader, or even someone you’ve networked within your chosen career field. Think of a mentor like having your own private secret weapon for success. And when I say “quality mentor,” I mean someone who cares about you as a person and your success. A mentor is not someone who will only give you five minutes of their time and otherwise treat you like you are a distraction.

 A mentor is someone who will not only give you good advice, but will help you seek out networking opportunities, includes you in on collaborative projects, such as research, conference presentations, and employment opportunities. A mentor is someone you can vent to and bounce ideas off of. A quality mentor is also someone who doesn’t pretend to know it all; a person that will guide you in the right direction if they don’t have a direct answer. A quality mentor is someone that you can look to throughout your lifetime as you progress through your career.

Be a kickass leader by having a quality mentor.

Secret #5: Remain humble. I strongly believe in the mantra of civility, integrity, and responsibility. I think these are the attributes of what makes a great leader. If I could add one more attribute to the list of civility, integrity, and responsibility, it would be humility. People appreciate and admire those leaders who don’t take all the credit, are courteous, and make those around them feel appreciated and respected.

One of my favorite books is “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” by Dr. Robert Sutton from Stanford University. Dr. Sutton’s premise is that bullying behavior in the workplace kills morale and productivity. He uses the word “asshole” because other terms, such as bully or jerk does not have the same impact.

Two tests are specified to recognize this type of person: After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated, or otherwise worse about themselves? — and — Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her? You can probably name multiple individuals that you deal with on a weekly basis that fit these criteria. DON’T BE LIKE THEM!

It’s easy to be in control and push people around, but it takes a true leader to be civil and gracious and, most importantly, humble.

Be a kickass leader by remaining humble.

What are some other ways to be a kickass leader? Please share your comments below.

You can also see a video of Dr. Helfrich giving a speech on 5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader.

Ropes Courses and Icebreakers Do Not Make a Student Leader.

March 14, 2013


As a student affairs professional, I am involved with student leadership on a number of different levels from supervising my own student staff to advising colleagues on how to develop leadership programs for their campus. I have come to learn that the term “student leadership” has come to represent a catch-all phrase for what is simply student involvement and not true “leadership.” Unfortunately, many colleges and universities continue to offer activities and programs in which they think leads to student leadership development, but actually does not.


Ropes Courses – Contrary to popular belief, research shows that rope courses for traditional-aged, university students have little if any educational benefit. Recreation folks and other challenge course enthusiasts would say that these experiences help to develop teamwork, but the activity does not truly reflect situations students will find themselves in while in the work world. From a student affairs standpoint, we’re not preparing our students to be Navy Seals or Army Rangers. Additionally, a ropes course experience is simply going to be a day-long activity for most student participants so most of the lessons are going to be forgotten shortly thereafter.

Ice Breakers – One of my pet peeves is when student life professionals only utilize ice breakers as means for training student leaders. While ice breakers and other activities like this are fun and can serve a purpose as a “warm-up” activity, they cannot be substituted for meeting student learning outcomes. One or two quick activities to start the day or to get students talking is perfectly fine. But using these activities for the “meat” of your program does little if anything to serve the leadership needs of your students.

Theory-Heavy Texts & Articles – Colleges can make the mistake of having leadership development classes and programs that utilize textbooks and articles that are laden with research and theory that border on hardcore management, organizational development, and industrial psychology content. While I feel this is appropriate for graduate-level work, the message is going to be lost on undergraduates. Additionally, leadership classes that do not incorporate experiential learning activities are not going to be as effective as those that do have a “hands-on” component.


Student Learning Outcomes – Based upon the mission and vision of your institution, what is it that you want your students to learn? Develop your leadership programs with student learning outcomes at the forefront rather than attempting to create outcomes based on activities that you already provide (which, unfortunately, may not even support student learning). Furthermore, develop evidence-based outcomes that can be assessed. Utilize the CAS Standards and Guidelines for Student Leadership Programs to help guide your efforts.

Experiential Learning – Partnering hands-on-learning with content and professional mentoring is the most powerful way for students to learn leadership skills. Create activities that allows students to put into action the content they are learning in the classroom or during any training sessions. Examples of well-established experiential learning applications, include cooperative education, internships and service learning.

What other leadership learning experiences have you offered for your students that you found to be effective?

Smart Social Media Protocols for Student Leaders

March 5, 2012

Student leaders are given a great deal of responsibility and are expected to model professional behavior and conduct. Whether you are a club president, resident advisor, or student government member, your use of social media must be thought out and well planned. While many college students will post every thought or complaint that comes to mind, student leaders must consciously monitor what they post via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media avenues. Student leaders must also be cognizant that any information they post is public so supervisors, university administrators, potential employers, and many others can now view what has been posted.

With that being said, here are five smart protocols to help guide student leaders in their use of social media:

  • Do not post something publicly that you would not discuss with your members – As a student leader, you represent a whole host of varied and diverse interests of those individuals that you serve. Your personal opinions may not represent the opinions of the entire group. Posting something that you would not discuss with you group could turn members against you.
  • Do not use social media to undermine your advisor or university administrators – While it may not be uncommon for you to disagree with the decisions and / or opinions of your advisors or university administrators, how you handle your personal opinions is going to set you apart from others. Posting an underhanded and negative comment will most likely anger your advisor, definitely won’t win you any favors, and it could cost you the respect of those that look to you for leadership. Online cheapshots will only make you look foolish; don’t create an online crusade. Likewise, do not create a “fake” account to complain and whine anonymously. If you have something to say, do so privately or as a discussion topic during a regularly scheduled meeting. Good leaders have integrity and courage to be proactive with difficult and uncomfortable circumstances.
  • Avoid posting personal and “inside jokes” – The easiest way to alienate others is by not including them in the fun. A good leader is inclusive and makes everyone feel a part of the group. Posting jokes that only a select few individuals can appreciate and understand on organization-related pages undermines your ability to create and maintain team cohesion.
  • Respect confidentiality – As a student leader, you will most certainly be trusted with information related to finances, upcoming decisions and announcements, and personal data. Other students are not privy to this information, and it is important that you keep it to yourself and not post it using social media. You should also use special care when chatting online or through text when it relates to sensitive information, because you may not always be communicating with the person you think you are. One mistake can have far-reaching consequences. And as a general rule of thumb, do not discuss confidential information online.
  • When in doubt, ask your advisor – If you have a question or concern related to posting information online, have a discussion with your advisor or supervisor. Seek clarification and understanding before proceeding forward because it is always better to be safe than sorry.

What are some other protocols and / or practices that you utilize on your campus related to student leaders using social media? Please share your comments below.

Volunteering as an Alternative Spring Break Advisor / Chaperone (Guest Post by Jamie Shook)

March 23, 2011

In March, I had the unique opportunity to serve as a graduate student chaperone for an Alternative Spring Break trip to Detroit, Michigan, with students at the University of South Carolina. I heard the trip would require construction work, and I had an image of myself in my worn undergraduate t-shirts with a hammer and nails laughing in the sunshine over spring break with students, and gathering in the evening for significant group reflection that inspired laughter and tears. The day our group left for Detroit, I loaded my oversized suitcase along with nine students and a professional staff member into a 15 passenger van and proceeded to Michigan. 

Here are some highlights from my trip with some advice related to participating as an alternative spring break advisor / chaperone:

Go for it!  The volunteer opportunity came as an email six months ago on a listserv asking for professional and graduate student help. I informally replied to the contact person my interest.  At the time, I was not able to predict how busy my spring would be with my graduate assistantship, academic coaching, and summer internships interviews.  As the trip neared, so did my eager anticipation (and perhaps my anxiety) for the trip. There were certainly moments prior to the trip where I thought, “Shouldn’t I be using that week to relax? Catch up on work? Sleep?” But my advice to you, if I had any for this, is to go for it!

You may think you have control, but you have no idea. Volunteer opportunities are always a tricky thing. You have to be beyond flexible (nearly fluid) to have a successful experience.  urther, as a chaperone you may think in a moment of complete naiveté that you have some form of control beyond what the students have. This may be true as far as holding the pre-paid gas card, but completely alien from the truth in many other ways. The student leader who coordinated and planned the service trip revealed details of the trip coordination as the trip moved forward. My advice: Ensure students are safe and (relatively) happy and watch the group dynamic and student leadership in the making. Support the student leader as needed, but be happy to give up the reigns, and watch the learning process of your students.

Community building is essential. It takes more than a bus ride. As a chaperone, you sometimes only have the trip to help develop community within the group. Our group did not meet regularly prior to the trip but would have benefited greatly from such opportunity. Recognize the value community building brings to your service trip, make it a priority, and schedule time to create group community prior to the trip. This further allows you, as a chaperone, to gain an understanding of the needs of individuals in the group and benefits you during the trip as group dynamic issue comes into play.

There will probably be group dynamic issues. Recognize this and roll with it. Support your student leader in understanding their role in group conflict and the outstanding opportunity for growth that comes from it. As the chaperone, ensure that all rules are being followed, and show impartiality during the conflict. Help students, individually or in the group, process the conflict afterward, and discuss what they have gained from this particular experience.

Not everyone in your group will be thrilled about the service opportunity. You may run into an issue where a student is not happy to be working on homes, interacting with children, or assisting the aging community. As a chaperone, encourage the students that are enjoying the service experience, and work with individuals who are not. Intentional discussions to express mutual expectations prior to the trip are key to avoiding this issue, but in the moment you can help the student recognize the strengths they bring to this particular project and the skills they are gaining. Help the student make connections between their service projects this week and their multiple roles back at their home institution and local community.

Students will form meaningful moments with their peers, sometimes (gasp) without your help. You will be amazed and how your students interact. It was inspiring for me to play cards in the evening and watch as the group of students encouraged and supported each other. As much as I would love to take credit for the deepened relationships among the group, I can’t. Meaningful moments can be created without intentionality. While it is important to create moments for reflection and team building, recognize the value of unplanned moments of meaning. 

Student learning is essential, but take time to think about your own learning, too. I can guarantee you will learn as a chaperone on an Alternative Spring Break trip with 24/7 student contact. Recognize the importance of student learning, but also think of your own growth during the trip. Encourage others to break barriers, but do the same yourself.

Journal during the trip. During formalized reflection, give your own personal thoughts from the trip. This will encourage students to reflect and think about the affect their current work has on their current and future roles as students and professionals.

It’s an adventure, and it’s worth it. Alternative Spring Break trips are true adventures. Treat these trips as such, and recognize that adventures come with responsibilities. Prepare for the adventure accordingly. Alternative Spring Break trips require hard work and preparation, but they are worth it.

Jaime Shook is a graduate student in the Higher Education Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina (USC).  She serves as a graduate assistant for University 101, the first-year seminar course, and as an academic skills coach for the Academic Centers for Excellence (ACE) at the University. 

%d bloggers like this: