How to Be an Effective Student Leader

24. September 2013

Benjamin Franta

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. What makes for a good leader? What makes someone effective at creating change?

Leadership is similar to other skills in that we learn it through a combination of imitation, trial and error and practice. Yet it is not as easy to assess as other abilities, because leadership can be found in many forms. There is no single standard by which to judge ourselves or others.
 
However, the best leaders whom I’ve known do have a few things in common; three in particular stand out:
 
1) Conceptual creativity that is also specific and linked to reality. This is often called “vision.”
 
2) The ability to identify, obtain and create resources, whether they are human, financial, technical or of some other nature.
 
3) The interpersonal and strategic skills necessary to execute the vision by making use of those resources.
 
How can we develop vision, resources and execution skills? There are many ways, including training, seeking new experiences, observing others and so on. Personally, one of the most useful methods I’ve found to build leadership is to cultivate certain habits that lead to positive outcomes. The most important of these are to:
 
Be honest in every interaction. Some people are effusive; others are terse. Regardless of style, honesty is the bedrock of a good leader. While it may sound easy, being honest means letting go of your fear of being judged. That can be difficult, and it takes practice.
 
Keep it simple. Great accomplishments happen one step at a time. As a leader, one of your jobs is to simplify complicated processes so that the people around you are more effective. Don’t expect to be thanked for this work; if you do it right, others won’t even be aware that you’ve done it. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for any team.
 
Don’t take (or give) anything personally. Sometimes others will not be able to help you, or your interests will clash with theirs. This is normal, and there’s no need for frustration or resentment. An effective leader doesn’t begrudge others following their own interests, even when it presents obstacles. Rather, you should strive to understand the goals and desires of others without judgment, and determine what constructive outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
 
These actions cultivate trust, promote the completion of goals, and preserve and develop positive and creative relationships. It’s important to remember that these are not inborn traits; they can be developed through conscious effort. Improvement requires practice, critical self-examination, and the will to keep trying and learning from mistakes.
 
What characteristics have you found to be important for effective leadership? Share them in the comments below!
 
Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard University. He is the president of Harvard Photonics (Harvard’s OSA student chapter), an organizer for NanoStart (a new nanotechnology think tank at Harvard), and an executive board member of Divest Harvard (a climate activist campaign). He is also a Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute.

 

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How to Start an OSA Student Chapter

18. April 2012

by Ben Franta

An OSA student chapter can provide a great avenue for developing your leadership skills and cultivating professional connections, both within and outside your university. 

If you don’t have a chapter at your college or university, this post explains how you can establish one. The idea of forming a student organization from scratch can be daunting, but don’t worry. With the right approach, it can be a great experience and a lot of fun. While founding our own student chapter at Harvard, we learned how important it is to have a clear plan of action from the outset:

Gather a group of cofounders. Even if you feel you can do everything yourself, don’t! Gather a small group of students who are dedicated to the success of the project. Not only do many hands make light work, but building a leadership team early will make your chapter more resilient down the road.

Find one or more faculty advisors. Although your organization will be run by and for students, it pays dividends to find at least one faculty member who is willing to be associated with it in an official way. A faculty endorsement sends a message that your chapter represents a serious effort that is worthy of support. Furthermore, your faculty advisor can make use of official channels of communication within your university on behalf of your group.

Plan a series of events and create a budget. You need a schedule of activities to obtain funding, but it can be difficult to plan events without knowing how much funding you’ll have. Don’t get stuck here! Sit down with your group of cofounders and identify potential funding sources. These might include your school or university, your department, student activities funds or other professional societies. Estimate the amount you can reasonably request from each source, and use that budget to plan a series of events (with dates) for the coming term. Be ambitious but realistic. Remember that the best events for a young chapter are those that have wide appeal and build student membership. 

Register your chapter and open a funds account. Now it’s time to make your chapter official.  Register your group with OSA as well as with your school or department. Ask someone within your institution to help you create an account for your chapter funds, whether it’s through the university itself or an external bank. They should also help you to conform to any rules or regulations pertaining to student organizations at your university.

Make funding proposals. Propose your coming schedule of events and budget to each potential source of funding.  Clearly lay out how much you’re requesting, when the funds will be used, and what they will be used for. Work with each source to address its questions and accommodate its requests. Remember: building long-term working relationships with funding sources is more important than simply obtaining as much funding as possible right away.

Finalize your events schedule and ramp up advertising. Once you know your level of funding, modify your plan of activities and finalize your schedule. At this point, it’s essential to reach out to students and faculty to raise awareness of your chapter and its coming activities. Fire on all cylinders: email, websites, posters, word of mouth, and anything else you can think of. Your goal is to gain momentum.

Ensure sustainability. Congratulations—you’ve got your OSA student chapter up and running! But how do you ensure it lasts long after you’ve gone? If you build a deep and flexible leadership team, generate enthusiasm and involvement from student members, and work to grow your chapter into a vibrant community of friends and collaborators, your chapter will take on a life of its own.

Hopefully this article helps to demystify the process of starting your own OSA student chapter. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Good luck and have fun!

Ben Franta (bafranta@fas.harvard.edu) is a graduate student studying applied physics at Harvard University and the president of Harvard’s OSA student chapter.

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