Get Off the Throne: How To Handle Power-Hungry Leaders

Student Leader

What do you do when one of your group's leaders thinks he's a king, refuses to listen to suggestions, and isn't willing to get his hands dirty with menial tasks? As you stand with mouth agape, he takes credit for everything that goes right, blames you for everything that goes wrong, yet has little to do with the actual work that makes your projects or events run smoothly. You probably feel like strangling him — or worse.

When you run into a student who loves being in the spotlight, he probably is more interested in glorifying his image than doing the sometimes menial, boring work necessary to make a group or event successful. "Several years ago, the leader of our Student Action Board repeatedly didn't show up for meetings, yet complained when things didn't get done and took credit for projects that were successful," says JoAnn Morlan, activities coordinator at Des Moines Area Community College-Carroll Campus in Iowa. "He consistently violated policies and the members attempted to talk to him, but he chose to ignore their warnings, so they had to remove him."

If you run into this type of leader, your group's morale likely will take a beating, and fellow members could become resentful or might quit. Here are some tips to help you avoid having to give your leader the boot to get your group back on track.

1. Tell the leader you're concerned, but don't be insulting. "Keep from personally attacking them, but be as honest as possible. It's a fine line, but it can be done," says William Murray, Student Government Association president at the University of Memphis. "Say, `I've heard a lot of people are frustrated, partly with you.' The easiest way to get them talking about changes is to accept some of the blame. Unless the followers and leader are working together, you're as much at fault as he is."

"First, attempt to have a meeting without the advisor present, so they won't feel like they're getting into trouble," says Cathy Ingram, director of student activities at the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York. "Talk to them one on one, instead of issuing a reprimand. Hopefully, you'll help them see where they can improve. They sometimes don't realize how they're coming across. The last resort is to say, `Stop what you're doing or else.'"

2. Offer your comments confidentially as a friend rather than as a competitor. "You can give club leaders a reality check," Ingram says. "Ask how much of their membership is involved in decision-making and who's coming up with new ideas. If they're answering these questions, `Me, me, me,' there's a problem."

3. Rehearse what you want to say. "Before you confront this person, run it by someone neutral who you can trust," says Tammy Green, director of student activities at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "Practice what you're going to say to make sure your tone isn't putting them on the defensive. Don't make it a personality attack.

"Make sure you have specific examples, not a laundry list of what they've done wrong," Green says, "but examples where in this situation you believe you're not effective as an organization. There has to be some things that this person is doing well, and you can identify these."

4. Carefully consider if you want to have a written record of your complaint. "If your problems with the leader are about procedural guidelines that are being abused, put your concerns in writing," says Shari Gresham, interim director of student activities and organizations at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. "Avoid documenting subjective concerns like personality problems." Once you've written the letter, put it away for 24 hours, and then see if it really says what you intended. Keep a copy in your file, and give one to your advisor.

5. Don't gossip — keep your comments and complaints within the group, or you'll damage your reputation and your group's image. "Many times, students don't realize the potential damage that can be caused by talking about the group outside of a constructive process for dealing with issues," says Wilda Jones, direc-tor of student activities and the Runyan Center at Earlham College in Indiana. "It's appropriate to talk about disagreements, but you need to have a process to do that. If it's not done to strengthen the group, it can hurt its' reputation."

6. As a last resort, prepare to issue an ultimatum. "Get your advisor to do the dirty work, to say, 'Shape up or you're out,'" says David Coffey, president of the Colorado College Campus Association. "Refer to your charter, and see what your options are to boot this person. Usually there are rules you can use, like if they don't show up for meetings, or you can vote to have new elections since most groups are run democratically."

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