The Lessons of Student Leadership from Reality TV

In many of my keynotes, I talk about abstract concepts, like creating a vision and believing in yourself. These are important aspects of leadership, but sometimes you need something more concrete. There are times when you simply need a reality check. For instance, when student leadership is transitioning, the old is moving out and the new is getting established. During this time, there needs to be a “smack you in the face” kind of reality.

So, let’s pretend for a moment that transitioning student leadership is actually a reality TV show. In many ways, it is much the same. There’s the drama of hurt feelings, boundaries being crossed, competition, a sense of isolation and feeling lost and alone. There’s also the incredible moments that make it all worthwhile. The bonding, camaraderie, sense of accomplishment, teamwork and leadership development all revolve around knowing you are making a difference on your campus and community. But, how do we insure that there are more good times than bad?

The Bachelor and Relationships

We can gain valuable insights from actual reality TV shows. Let’s take a look at The Bachelor, for instance. Some believe this program is all about romance, but in actuality, it’s about relationships.

You, as the student leader, are the lead character. You are the “bachelor/bachelorette,” and your “real” job is to build successful relationships with everyone—people from different walks of life, with different backgrounds, styles and values. Some of these individuals have a great attitude, and want to participate fully in the process. Others are only focused on their own needs and agendas. Some listen to you, others only hear what suits them. Everyone, though, wants the same thing: to succeed.

So, as a student leader, how best to make this success happen? One of the most important ways is to develop healthy and meaningful relationships with each person in your group. I’m not talking about the down and dirty kind of relationships the bachelor is looking for, but the type of relationship leaders need to develop to move an organization forward. Relationships with people are how we primarily achieve our goals, and they draw out the best in all of us. When there is mutual understanding and trust, there can be powerful results.

Relationships, however, don’t happen overnight. They develop intentionally as you communicate honestly with each other, share pertinent information, spend time together, go the extra mile and offer each other support. (Unlike The Bachelor, it takes more than a few boxes of chocolate and a bouquet of flowers.)

As a student leader, these are people you MUST build healthy relationships with:

The student(s) who previously held your leadership position.
They have the answers and the experience you need, so it is vital that you do not alienate them. Show them respect, acknowledge and appreciate all they have done, and reach out to them for help. You can even request a day of training. More often than not, they are more than happy to comply. They want their legacy to continue.

The students currently in your organization.
To succeed, you must enlist these individuals to show up, participate, and serve your organization. This will only happen through healthy relationships, and it all starts with you. Every day, do one thing to strengthen the bond between the members of your organization.

Your advisor, the Student Affairs Staff and other professionals on campus.
These individuals are here to help you succeed, but as in the other instances, these are relationships. It is always a two way street. The professionals on campus can only advocate for you if you let them know what is going on, and ASK for help. The better they know you, the more vested they will be in your success!

You, as the student leader, must also use your natural strengths and talents every day to be a more effective leader. You will truly benefit by drawing upon your strengths for each leadership endeavor you encounter.

For instance, if you have the gift of writing, you might create a newsletter for your organization. If your strength is mediation, you might teach communication to your members. If organization is your thing, be in charge of follow-through. The opportunities are endless, but one thing is clear, your gifts should be utilized. They will make you more successful and inspire others.

Like characters in realty TV, student leaders must acquire specific skills to succeed. While it is true that leadership is a combination of many small things working together, the reality is this. You must build healthy relationships, listen to others, empower people, step out of your comfort zone and never forget to use your individual strengths. Your student leadership experience is invaluable. If you give it your all, it will give you the experience, self-confidence and decision making ability to succeed on your campus and in life.

So I propose we create a new reality TV show called Success of the Student Leader. The camera would zoom in on the first day of meetings and find the student leader listening to the ideas of peers. We would see the camera pan across a long list of proposed projects and then pull back to display a leader delegating and prioritizing an item list. The lens would follow the day-to-day activities of the student leader as they fulfill their academic and social responsibilities but then spend their evenings planning, checking their organization’s progress, and inspiring their team. The closing credits would acknowledge every member of the organization and the institution for the opportunity to grow, learn and become the best student leader you can be.

For more information about Elaine Penn and all of her dynamic keynotes that promote the success of students and student leaders, and to see a promotional video, please visit