TEDx UAlberta talks offer varying perspectives on leadership

On this campus, the word “leadership” is so overused that it has become an eye-rolling cliché. Despite this, the TEDx UAlberta conference on March 6 at the Citadel Theatre offered some interesting views on what the term means and why students shouldn’t aspire to be a leader for the title alone.

Universities seem to go through trends, whether it’s trying to become more “interdisciplinary” or create more “safe spaces.” The newest trend, “leadership,” has become a profitable enterprise for the university in the past few years. At the Alberta Student Leadership Summit in January, for example, over 300 people somehow justified shelling out $40 to have self-proclaimed “student leaders” answer questions the world’s greatest minds have failed to solve, like how to “establish your pathway to success” and “build personal courage.”

Some organizers of the TEDx UAlberta conference seemed poised to carry on this idea that the world is a dichotomy of “leaders” and “followers” in their introductory speeches. By the time the first presenter took the stage, the audience had been told by three different people they were among “the university’s most brilliant minds” just for purchasing a ticket and showing up.

The first speaker, Marvin Washington, an associate professor in the Alberta School of Business, came as a breath of fresh air. Though he has worked extensively with government officials and university deans, his talk focused on the lessons in leadership he learned from coaching teenage boys’ basketball.

Washington’s two sons are 5’6 and 5’8 and, despite their height, dream of becoming basketball players. Instead of giving up because of something they can’t change, both of them practice for hours each day to improve their technical skills. Rather than calling yourself a leader, Washington advocated for “leaning into your own problems” and committing to finding a solution. It doesn’t matter how many people your problem influences — even Mother Teresa was criticized in her lifetime for devoting herself to helping the poor and not other vulnerable groups. Likening the qualities of 13-year-old boys in the city’s southwest to those of the world’s most admirable people was powerful and moving.

Contrary to the title of his talk, “How to Lose 50 Pounds and Keep Them Off,” the next speaker, Dr. Arya Sharma, described how overweight people will never lose significant weight because of the elasticity of body tissue. There was no transition between his session and the next, in which architect Jill Robertson described the need for more culturally-significant urban design in Edmonton. Needless to say, the speaking roster was random and disjointed. While the presenters were hit-or-miss, many stood out as inspirational. They urged a similar message: leadership is more than a label. People like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi never saw themselves as leaders, and it’s wrong for students to strive for that title. In the words of speaker Derek Sivers, “Leadership is over-glorified. If you care about a movement, dare to be a follower.”

For me, ideas like these are far more inspiring than the university’s redundant message that all leaders must have served on the Students’ Union, interned in D.C., volunteered for a couple of hours at a high-profile campus event and written at least one half-assed blog post about mental health by the time they graduate. This kind of dialogue is inclusive and healthy, and I would like to see more of it.

TEDx UAlberta’s logistics were shaky and their choice in speakers was odd. But with a clearer vision of their goal and a better idea of which speakers resonate with audiences, the conference has the potential to become a an attraction at the U of A in years to come.

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