by Nah Sze Perng (16A13A)
Photographs by Raffles Photographic Society
“Thinker, Leader, Pioneer” is the very ethos of the Raffles Programme that aims to inculcate skills and values in every Rafflesian. The leadership aspect of this, as cemented in the Leadership component of the Raffles Diploma, receives much focus and attention from students and faculty staff, inevitably bringing into currency questions – for instance, ‘Is Leadership suitable for everyone?’ These questions are of significance to an education system which aims to provide a holistic education for everyone.
This extends to leadership which moves beyond imparting hard skills to students in the form of logical reasoning. Rather, it places emphasis on soft skills, such as interpersonal communication and the ability to harness the energies of individuals and channel them towards a common purpose. Arguably, some have made the case that leadership is not for everyone, that the unique characteristics of willing to take initiative, risks and enrapturing crowds with unrivalled oratory ability are only seen in a select few, extroverted individuals. In a meritocratic system, it is assumed that resources used to groom the next generation of leaders would be diverted towards these individuals.
However, if our education system is to be inclusive and all-encompassing, leadership opportunities should be presented to the wider student demographic instead of focusing on the most outspoken and visible. It is this author’s personal opinion that the Student’s Council and the perceptions attached to it create a climate that is unfavourable and unwelcoming towards introverts who may be drowned out by their more extroverted peers.
Who are introverts?
An introvert is one who likes to focus on their own inner world of ideas and experiences. They direct their energy and attention inward and derive energy from reflecting on their thoughts, memories, and feelings.” Regardless of which psychological framework you subscribe to, introverts are generally intensely private people who prefer to work in more personal and intimate situations. When faced with the unfamiliar, they prefer to observe at length before committing to actions or decisions. That is not to say that all introverts are shut ins who do not interact socially with others, but that the overwhelming majority have clear, demarcated private and public lives and that they are less likely to jump into the thick of things and prefer to analyse the situation first.
What is it about the Students Council that makes it unfriendly towards introverts?
Firstly the nature of the institution itself actively rewards those who are the first to initiate new ideas and events and places less focus on those who seem to lack the initiative to do so. Prospective members of the Student’s Council are required to put forth an initiative as part of their council application despite having only enrolled in this institution for a mere two months.
Despite council outreach programmes such as those to allow applicants to know more about the Student’s Council, the fact remains that many of prospective applicants lack the social capital and extensive social networks to gain a sincere and genuine understanding of the improvements that can be made in school and the avenues to enhance the existing vibrant student life on campus. From the onset, the Student’s Council places a disproportionate focus on those who are extremely expeditious in attuning to their external environment. This is likely to be a disadvantage towards introverts who require more time to do so.
Furthermore, the Student’s Council confers recognition towards those who are more outwardly expressive. We often see those who are outwardly expressive being conferred key positions in the Student’s Council or delegated helming roles for important events within school. Manifestations of such outward expression comes in the form of a predisposition to communicate verbally, work out ideas with others by talking them through and to learn through doing or discussing. While every organisation needs people who are effective communicators to share a common vision and engage members across all levels always putting such people in the limelight and placing an inordinate expectation to be outwardly expressive may result in those who are less assertive to feel sidelined and less welcome. The constant limelight on those who are more comfortable in asserting themselves tends to repress those who are less comfortable in sticking too steadfastly to their convictions. Without regulating the flow of discussion to prevent it from becoming unidirectional, opinion is likely to be shaped by more dominant personalities, reducing the space for introverts to air their views. We have all seen or heard about the classmate whose opinions may have been shut down but a peer who is more confident, outspoken and uses these aspects of himself/herself to dominate discussion. Transfer such dynamics to the institution of the Student’s Council where students vie for recognition whilst empowering the student body amongst many other things and it is not difficult to observe a trend where introverts experience a disjunct between themselves and the larger body of the Student’s Council. This is not to say that introverts are alienated from the rest of their peers in the SC, as many would have forged meaningful and lasting friendships with their fellow councillors. However, in the larger discussion regarding school affairs, they may feel that an insurmountable distance separates them and the rest due to the dominance of a prominent group of personalities. What exacerbates this disquieting sense of distinction is that those who emerge at the top of the pecking order and ultimately receive the most recognition are held up as exemplars of student leadership for everyone to follow in their footsteps and emulate. The parading of a singular monolithic model of student leadership where one has to be constantly outwardly expressive leaves very little room for alternative models of leadership that may espouse a more discreet and prudent manner to approach situations and lead others. Introverts may feel unneeded social pressure to conform to such models. Much to their detriment, this may inadvertently stifle the development of their own leadership style.
Moreover, there are social barriers that introverts would have to contend with when joining the Student’s Council. The ability to rally schoolmates in a personal capacity is one of the defining traits of a councillor. This is seen in how the election process for councillors and the promulgation of their initiatives largely depends on the social capital and the support they receive from their peers. People would rather vote for someone they know personally and vouch for their credibility compared to another person whom they have barely met or even heard of. To this extent, the participation for various events and initiatives such as the string of interhouse events depends on the visibility of the organising/promotion team and the number of people they are able to rope in to support their event. Introverts may feel pressurised to reach out to more people to promote their initiative or event. Admittedly, getting people out of their comfort zones to hone their communication and interpersonal skills ultimately results in their own benefit. However, to feel constant pressure to do so and subject yourself to constant social scrutiny to compete with others for “popularity” and visibility could have adverse effects on the psyche of a 17-18 year old. This is not a phenomenon limited to the student’s council for it happens in social settings all the time. The Student’s Council enhances it because everyone is expected to contribute in every step of the process, from planning to publicising and final execution. That is where notions of comparison, be it imposed or self-conferred, creep in. Though they may not be comfortable with it, introverts may feel pressured to share through their social media or personal communication aspects of their private life with the larger school population so as to increase their visibility and keep up with such social competition.
Why do all these matter anyway?
A key function of school and the education system is to provide a nurturing environment to develop students holistically. Though introverted students may feel displaced in larger social environments that they would be exposed to in the Student’s Council, the school should not merely pander towards those who are more outspoken and extroverted. Rather, the hallmark of a successful education system is how we encourage those to venture out of their comfort zones to develop skills that they would not have foreseen themselves doing prior to such. This begins with creating an environment that is welcoming to students of all personalities and working styles by ensuring a persistent focus on the personal development of each student. More recognition could be conferred to a more diverse range of leadership styles which encourages students, and in particular to speak up and not be afraid to make mistakes for that is when they truly learn. The school as a nurturing environment, should empower students, rather than make them feel unnecessary pressure or unwelcome.
Furthermore, students need to be exposed to a diverse range of leadership styles, rather than to be prescribed with a sanitised model of leadership. School as a safe platform for preparing students for later life, should feature different leadership and working styles that cater to different people, recognising that even great leaders from the likes of Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan have contrasting ways of broadcasting their vision. This can be achieved by promoting divergent views into the Student’s Council by seeking prospective members from a cross-section of the student body, be it introverts, extroverts, sportsmen, or those from the performing arts etc. Soliciting different views to redefine the role of councillors in the context of the needs of the student population would not only prevent groupthink but also benefit the student population who would be served by a student body which is more representative of them and their interests.
Amid the debate on personality types, some argue that Council is not obliged to be inclusive of all personalities. After all, students are expected to fit into the system rather than have the system make exceptions for certain group of students due to their “incompetency” stemming from their lack of leadership ability. There could be other leadership opportunities in school more suited to introverts. However, the Student’s Council is the only leadership body that organises events for the whole school on a large scale and a consistent basis. This places it in the unique position of uniting the entire student body through such events. Since it caters to a wide spectrum of students, the composition of the Student’s Council should be representative of the diverse student body, which includes introverts. Moreover, it is untrue that introverts cannot be inspiring leaders. Take for instance, self-professed introverts such as Barack Obama, the President of the USA and Marrisa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo have risen to prominent leadership positions in their respective fields. Clearly, being an introvert and a recognised leader are not mutually exclusive. The much vaunted leadership body of the Student’s Council should recognise the leadership potential that introverts possess and strive towards fostering inclusivity between councillors of differing personalities.
Inevitably, as much as the school and the rest of us strive to foster a nurturing environment for all students, introverts and extroverts alike, it is shaped by the fast paced and compact nature of JC. The fact that the tenure of the councillors only lasts for a year, makes it necessary for teachers and the larger student body to exact higher demands from our student leaders, to adapt quickly to the dynamic changes we face daily. As such, introverts must be willing to step out of their comfort zone, engage the community around them and not be put off by perceptions associated to the Student’s Council. However, responsibility also falls upon the school to cultivate an environment that does not unduly sideline introverts but rather, upholds introversion as an effective leadership style. It is through such a synergy of the support rendered by the school community and the eagerness of students, councillors to develop themselves and the people around them can we truly nurture the potential of every Rafflesian.