Engaged leadership: moving beyond a buzzword

In its very essence, journalism is about words. The words we use aim to communicate ideas and information in a way that is succinct and accurate, but on a grander level, make a difference in our community.

But words are for more than journalism — as communication itself demands them — and they flow through society in waves of prevalence depending on time and location. On MSU’s campus, a certain set of words circulating lately, to one effect or another, is the university-sanctioned “Year of Engaged Leadership.”

Kick started by Yann Martel’s Freshman Convocation address, the “Year of Engaged Leadership” is a year-long university initiative that boasts different themes every month, such as “Listening” in September and “Empathy” in October, aimed at encouraging and developing leadership skills in students, faculty, staff and community members. According to the university, the “Year” holds “every person has leadership qualities” and is “intended to help draw out those qualities.”

Unfortunately, even if this is what is intended, in practice it has been much more convoluted.

The ideas of “leadership” and “engagement” themselves are incredibly important, and represent ideals different to every person. Because of this, there is a certain appropriateness in using the terms broadly to appeal to as many varying interests as possible.

But when the university chooses to institutionalize these concepts across so many sectors and devote an entire year to them, their community needs a stronger explanation for their purpose. To use these words in such a broad way without clearly defining them is to devalue them to nothing more than buzzwords — the tenets of imprecise and, therefore, meaningless communication . The more buzzwords are used for appearances and not for precise meaning, the easier it is to disregard them each time they appear.

[pullquote align=”right”]“To use these words in such a broad way without clearly defining them is to devalue them to nothing more than buzzwords — the tenets of imprecise and, therefore, meaningless communication .”[/pullquote]

Since Martel’s opening address, the title has been used to endorse 37 different events across campus. In October alone, the events range from speaker series to radio plays, and film screenings to a dance movement workshop.

The array of these events is not in itself a bad thing, but there is nearly always nothing beyond the event titles to indicate why they were chosen as worth the title. To an outsiders, the title “Year of Engaged Leadership” seems thrown at every event to see what sticks, instead of crafting the events to fit the term. Using these vague terms to describe every campus event is to devalue all simultaneously. As a result, the sentiment has become a campus joke, instead of a campus milestone.

The true tragedy  is the potential the “Year” could have if it were reimagined. Instead of throwing the terms around loosely, the words could be awarded to events on a prestigious basis; not hundreds of events over the year, but a few that stand-out as being unique and important to this year. Instead of hiding behind the notion of being “engaged leaders” simply because they are in a leadership position, the administration and campus leaders could reflect and report what the terms mean to them as individuals, and demonstrate how they intend to encourage the sentiment in peers.

More importantly, perhaps, the sentiments should be reflected in the actuality of campus life. Instead of special events, the idea should be integrated with academics and student organizations. Not on a forced and shallow basis, but as an opportunity to reflect on their importance to any discipline.

If the administration wants the MSU community to take the “Year of Engaged Leadership” seriously, they must be willing to take it seriously themselves.  Instead of noble words and concepts like “leadership” and “engagement” being emptied of their meaning and pressed into mundanity, they could actually mean something at MSU, and that’s worth striving towards.

As always, I can be reached for questions and feedback at editor@exponent.montana.edu.