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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 12th December 2019

Essential university student skills: leadership

12th December 2019

The words “leadership skills” can often sound like innocuous buzzwords. Words thrown about so often, most of us are desensitised to their meaning. They appear everywhere. In job applications, job ads and CVs; in the education sector; in vocational courses and training; in the realm of life coaching and developing your own path to success, just to name a few.

Despite possible overuse of the words, remember that the more vapid a catchphrase, the sharper the canines of importance it really covers.

“Leadership skills” will be of significant importance to you during your time as a student and well beyond into your working career (or other path you choose to take). It is an umbrella term for qualities that will not only help you nab that dearly sought-after job or place on the programme or position in the student union, but qualities that will give you better results and a deeper satisfaction in every facet of life. Skills like flexibility, communication, integrity et al, all come under the “Leadership” umbrella.

These skills take time to acquire and refine. They have to be moulded, sculptured, chiselled and fine-tuned. And the only way to do that is through doing. Luckily, there is no better place to get cracking than at university.

Below is some guidance what leaderships skills are, why they’re so important, and how you can develop your own skills and use them to your best advantage.

Collaboration and relationship-building

Collaboration, relationship building, and teamwork are essential components of not only successful students, but successful people. If you’re able to build genuine relationships with the people that surround you, problems will be solved quicker and projects will run smoother. Your confidence and sociability will improve, too. A problem shared is a problem halved, and there is never any harm in increasing the number of people that have your back should one rear its ugly head. Thankfully, the opportunities to work on your collaborative skills at university are countless: societies, sport teams, group-work, seminars, labs, the list goes on. All you have to do is throw yourself in, join a society or a sports team that you like the look of, be friendly, and you’ll have a team around you in no time.

Honesty and integrity

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are in a seminar, and your lecturer asks you a question unexpectedly. You’re not sure of the answer but to try and save face, you decide to wing your way through a response. You babble on about something totally irrelevant. There are some bemused looks on people’s faces and suddenly, your skin is turning the colour of a sun-dried tomato.

If, in this scenario, you had been honest, a few things would have happened. First, the tutor would likely have clarified any misunderstandings you had. Second, your admission of not knowing the answer would have facilitated a better discussion. Lastly, your honesty would have saved me from looking a top-tier chump.

People can often sacrifice honesty and integrity for looking more knowledgeable or capable than they actually are. But this is normally counter-intuitive. It doesn’t help anybody, and you will probably end up looking sillier. Nobody can know or do everything. If you are honest about your own skills and understanding, other people will be more at ease and willing to help you. There is something inherently respectable about someone who knows their own limits.

Inspiring others

A great leader has the ability to inspire others to strive for their best. Luckily for you, the opportunities to inspire others at university are innumerable. You are all in the same boat and, sometimes, the boat looks like it might be sinking. This is exactly the time to step in. Being empathetic, sharing in the problem, being honest, sensitive and caring; these basic human things can be enough to inspire others. And, more often than not, if you can be honest and let somebody know just what you think they are capable of, they will try to live up to that expectation. This isn’t only great for the camaraderie that university life necessarily breeds, but for career prospects and job satisfaction as well. If you can inspire and motivate university students, then you can inspire and motivate a workforce, and that skill alone is invaluable.

Commitment and passion

If you want a society unbridled with enthusiasm, a group-project with committed members in order to achieve the best grade, or even just a good turnout for a night on, there is only one place to start, and that’s with you. Showing passion and a commitment to a cause, no matter how small or trivial, will cause a surge in productivity and in the commitment and dedication of other team members. People want to be friends and associate with a passionate person, and people want to follow a passionate leader. Joining a society and being pragmatically involved with it can show passion; arranging study sessions can show passion; spending your free time helping friends or cultivating a deeper knowledge of certain areas (whether academic or no) can show passion. However, passion cannot be faked. In the words of Charles Bukowski – “find what you love and let it kill you.”

Good communication

Knowing how to tailor your speech to an audience can influence outcomes, steer conversation and facilitate bonds between friends, team-mates and society members. If you are looking for an investment into a project or society, you’ll need to know how to talk to investors; if you’re recruiting at a Fresher’s fair, you’ll need to know how to entice the student populace. Unfortunately for some, communication can be the hardest skill to cultivate. Crossed wires and misunderstandings are liable to happen throughout your university experience, but they are integral when learning to adapt your communication effectively. And the best way to become a good communicator? Practice. It’s about putting yourself into situations where you will speak to as many different people as possible. In the outside world, you’ll be talking to people from a thousand different walks of life, and being a good communicator will put you next to the best of them.

Decision-making capability

University is a perfect place for developing your decision-making capability, mainly because you are left to your own devices. Nobody is going to force you to do the work or show up on time. The decision is yours, and this kind of decision is one you will make every single day as a student. Whether you wind up as the president of a student society, captain of a sports team, or just prioritising your workload on a daily basis, the ability to quickly and authoritatively make a decision will inevitably be useful.

However, sometimes the decision-making process is stifling. The freedom you have can lead to option-paralysis. This is why it is important to set yourself clear goals in no uncertain terms, so that when you are confronted with a difficult decision, you can make a balanced choice quickly and with little exertion.

Accountability

If you’re going to be a leader, a lot of responsibility will be on your head. Even if you’re not, a lot of responsibility will be on your head. If you’re part of a team, you will have responsibilities; if you have classes to attend or work to be doing, you will have responsibilities. Whatever the case, the standard of work is entirely down to you – and there are an awful lot of distractions. Blaming a poor piece of work or your own unpunctuality on a night out or a society event only demonstrates your inability to prioritise effectively. It is all down to you, and holding yourself accountable for shortcomings is much more respectable than passing the buck. On the other hand, accountability is a two-way street: if you or your team do a task with excellent results, the praise and pride are yours to run with.

Delegation and empowerment

Taking the time to find out exactly who is good at what is an integral aspect of leadership. If you can tell just who is best suited to what role and delegate accordingly, half the battle is already done. However, each individual’s weaknesses are also important to recognise, and that’s where empowerment comes in. A great leader doesn’t just delegate roles according to strengths, but inspires people to improve in areas that they are less confident in. When it comes to university, there will always be that module or essay or project that just isn’t your forte. If somebody is there to cheer you along, you are more likely to leave your comfort zone and start taking those all-important baby steps on the road to improvement. An empowered team will be 50x more effective than the alternative, any day of the week.

Creativity and innovation

Einstein once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” To be able to innovate and think creatively is to be able to find new methods of thought, of practice and of discovery – and while you may think creativity is something you are born with, it most certainly isn’t. Creative thinking can be practiced; all it requires is a little awareness and perseverance. There are myriad opportunities to practice creative thinking, both at university and in day-to-day life. Keep an eye out for them. Choosing a dissertation topic, structuring an essay or putting together a presentation can all be mundane tasks that require little-to-no thought. However, if you force yourself to put serious time into thinking about the efficacy of seemingly minute details, your creative capacity will not only expand but undoubtedly surprise you. Anybody can be creative, if only they put in the time.

Positivity

Put simply, nobody likes a grump. Positivity attracts, and whatever positive energy you put into a room will be noticed and amplified, and this works with anything. Creativity, passion, commitment, communication, honesty – are you more likely to indulge these things in a negative environment or a positive one? Sometimes it can be hard to remain positive when the odds are set against you or your team; when the deadline looms a little too close or the workload seems a little too large. Luckily, the phrase “fake it till you make it” holds a lot of credence in terms of positivity. You don’t necessarily have to feel positive, so long as that is the impression you give out. Not only that, but if you give the impression of positivity, it will only be a matter of time before you begin to embody the very positivity that you were initially faking.

Flexibility

Social and economic environments, union legislation, workload – everything is constantly in flux. If you’re going to be the best you can be, you’re going to have to learn how to adapt to these sorts of changes. You’ll have to learn how to recognise when an old routine is no longer producing the same results, how to overcome challenges or deal with people that you find testing or difficult. Flexibility will not only allow you to adapt quickly to your environment, but it will make your life a lot easier. You can only control two things: what you do and what you think. As soon as you recognise that extrinsic situations are, more often than not, entirely out of your hands, you can begin to focus on just how the situation can be dealt with. It’s a skill that will not only alleviate your own stress and anxieties, but the stress and anxieties of those around you, too.

Strategic vision

Having strategic vision will help you develop many leadership skills with minimal conscious effort. To have a strategic vision is to have a concrete goal, whether it be written down or nay. It is to see the bigger picture, but to have an understanding of the smaller cogs that keep the machine running. It is to strike the balance between idealist and realist, visionary and implementer – and all you need to start is a goal. Any goal. If it’s to achieve a 1st, then the decisions you make should reflect that goal: be creative, be passionate and committed to the work. If it’s for your football team to win the league, then you should be positive, motivational and a good communicator. Having a strategic vision with a clear route will help you keep organised and will ease any tough decisions that present themselves, and will also help you to develop plenty of other skills along the way.