Who’s in charge here?

This is the first in a series on the graduate student leadership development experience at MIT, brought to you by the Leadership Development Subcommittee of the MIT Graduate Student Council. They welcome comments and feedback at gsc-leadership@mit.edu.

I’m a very top-down sort of person. I’m used to being able to ask “who’s in charge here?” and getting a simple answer. At MIT, the answer to that question is never simple, and that’s the beauty of this place.

When I first arrived here just over a year and a half ago, I was stunned at how anything ever got done. It seemed that everyone I met was working on something completely different, in silos, separated from other departments and projects. Somehow, though, the atmosphere at MIT always seems to evoke progress. Whether it’s the construction of a gorgeous new building (ignoring Stata for the moment), a breakthrough that advances scientific knowledge, or the creation of a new student club, it’s hard to turn a corner around campus without seeing something you’ve never seen before.

What does this have to do with leadership? What I’ve learned is that looking for leadership from a top-down perspective simply doesn’t work at MIT. Every leadership relationship I’ve witnessed has truly been a relationship between peers. Students can connect in so many ways; it’s inevitable that roles shift and blur depending on context. Each of us has been in these situations: your roommate doubles as your project team leader, your TA becomes teammate on an IM sport, or you find yourself interviewing someone who had just interviewed you a few days prior. Peer leadership challenges us because peers don’t have the luxury of leading from a podium. We all sit in the orchestra, equal in importance, sharing the responsibilities of the occasional lead part. As peers, we must define common goals, understand each others’ strengths, and build consensus before taking action.

I was always taught that the best view was from the top; who doesn’t aspire to become the CEO, the big shot with the corner office? Shouldn’t MIT students be charting their path toward becoming top-down leaders rather than wasting time mucking around with peers? Once again, I think MIT is at the cutting edge of what it means to be a leader. The clubs, conferences, and activities we get involved in here are not just for practice — they have real impact. They prepare us for the real world of today. What does it matter who has the corner office when your nearest coworker works an ocean away? Does innovation rest in the hands of CEOs, or friends tinkering in a garage? Is it really important to fight for the view from the top, or can you see the details better from the bottom?

The answers to these questions are more blurry today than ever before. Prolific information technology, the spread of common languages, and increasing multilateralism in international relations guarantees a future where peer relationships, not executive management, will separate good leaders from bad.

With that in mind, there are a few ways that we as a community can improve. First off, we need more participation by faculty and staff in student-organized activities. Due to the nature of their positions and the necessity to interact with students, faculty and staff offer a valuably broad perspective to students. On top of that, social settings offer a chance to learn lessons that might not come up in the classroom or lab. Both students and teachers can gain insights from each other, and at least for now, these opportunities are too often not taken.

Second, the Graduate Student Counci and Association of Student Activities should support team-building activities for student leaders at the beginning of the school year. Graduate students tend to come into a new year fresh with ideas and motivation; they slowly lose this initial enthusiasm as classes, research, and other priorities stack up. Currently, the Leadership BBQ is a great example of just such an activity, but it occurs at the end of the year, rather than the beginning. Teams need to be built very early so that peers can motivate each other throughout the year.

Finally, each student group should be required to write annual or semi-annual summaries of accomplishments as a requirement for ASA recognition. Budget breakdowns (which must be submitted for GSC-funded events anyway) should also be made public. These reports would give the MIT community a gateway for looking at what happens here due to student leadership on a daily basis. They would help like-minded groups find each other, reduce duplication of effort, and increase transparency on campus.

Making these suggested changes would help to incentivize student leaders to work with each other and get recognition for their efforts. At the same time, the independence that defines leadership at MIT would be preserved. And keeping this independence while promoting collaboration is very important, as each leader at MIT needs to have room to grow, succeed, and make their own mistakes. Because at MIT, the answer to the question “who’s in charge here?” is you.

Kevin Liu is a second-year S.M. candidate in the Technology and Policy Program (TPP).