True Leadership is Achieved Through Actions, Not Titles

With the start of the school year, many Sage Hill students are seeking leadership opportunities. In his latest blog post, President Gordon McNeill tells us the most meaningful leadership doesn’t require a title. 

As President of Sage Hill School, I’m a leader, but I believe 90% of how anyone leads has nothing to do with their title. Instead, it has to do with how they act. How they insert themselves into groups, converse with people, show interest and empathy, and inspire them to have an impact. Leadership comes naturally to some people, but I believe leadership can be taught to just about anyone. And, I believe each and every student at Sage Hill School has the opportunity to lead in a meaningful, impactful way.

Leadership was the reason behind a trip I took to Vietnam this summer with my wife, Anne Marie. There, we volunteered with a California-based group, “Giving it Back to Kids,” which provides services like medical care, nutrition and education to Vietnamese youth. The organization relies on educators in Vietnam to administer programs and work with students. But in Vietnamese culture, leadership isn’t viewed as an attribute the way it is here. People are more likely to await direction, reluctant to take the spotlight. For Giving it Back to Kids, this becomes a problem since the organizer can’t be present at all sites at all times. So my role was to inspire a group of about 20 educators to fearlessly take the lead in initiating programs and implementing ideas. I also took it a step further by discussing ways they can get their students to lead. I explained how students can be charged with coming up with ideas for activities and then executing those ideas. With or without a title, that’s leadership.

Which brings me back to Sage Hill. Here on campus, we have about 120 official leadership roles, not including team captains and club leaders. There’s no question holding a position like student body president, editor-in-chief, Honor Committee member or peer counselor is an amazing opportunity. But every high school in America has similar positions, so merely holding a title doesn’t really distinguish a student; what he or she does in that position is what truly matters. It matters in college admissions as much as it matters in life. Need proof? Look no further than the University of California application. To apply, students answer four “Personal Insight Questions,” choosing from eight prompts. One of the prompts asks students to describe an example of leadership experience, “in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.” UC has made a deliberate point of saying, “A leadership role can mean much more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking a lead role in organizing an event or project.” In other words, if you muddled through the year as president of a club but did nothing beyond the requirements and let everyone else do the work, you don’t have much leadership to report. But, if you were a member of that club, and when the president wasn’t leading you stepped up, organized teams to work together, created a schedule, and helped the group to win a regional award, then you’ve been a leader even without a title.

I learned this firsthand when I was a freshman basketball player at UC San Diego. I spent most of the time during games on the bench, but in workouts I was determined to work hard and have fun. I made it a point, each day, to bring something fresh to the team, whether it was a crazy haircut or an inspirational yell at that moment when we all really wanted to just stop. One day the coach said to me, “I love your energy and enthusiasm. Others are taking notice.” That’s when I realized I was hardly inconsequential to the team. I’d been leading by example, without even knowing it. In future years, I was named team captain, and while the title was nice to have, I never forgot the lesson about leading by example.

I would like every Sage Hill student to demonstrate that type of leadership. More formally, our students can create their own leadership opportunities by starting their own clubs or (for juniors and seniors) through Service Learning projects, but sometimes the most meaningful leadership happens when they just do what comes naturally. The student who sees someone sitting alone at lunch this first week of school and invites her to join her group of friends — that’s leadership. The one who walks out of advisory with his arm around the kid who’s struggling and says, “Hey, I’ve been there, I get it.” The student who approaches a group project, not by doing it all himself but by delegating tasks that allow each group member to draw upon their strengths; he’s a leader, too. We talk a lot about developing the “Six Cs” — Character, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking and Cross-cultural competency in our students. In fact, this year I will devote a blog post to each of these crucial skills, all of which are important aspects of leadership. Through actions, not titles, our students demonstrate they are the kinds of people colleges want on their campuses and employers want on their teams. I invite all of our students to lead this year, both in and out of the classroom, and to make their own, unique mark on our community.
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    • <strong>Welcome to my blog!</strong> It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of the school -- this blog is an opportunity to share my perspective on Sage Hill School.  I invite you share your thoughts and suggestions for future posts. Feel free to email me at <a href=""></a>.
      Mr. McNeill's Blog

      Welcome to my blog! It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of the school -- this blog is an opportunity to share my perspective on Sage Hill School. I invite you share your thoughts and suggestions for future posts. Feel free to email me at

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