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Derick Stace-Naughton Headshot

The Other Deficit

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I read a lot about myself these days. We millennials have become a popular editorial topic and political fulcrum. But while baby-boomer commentators fret over the financial debt they will leave us, I can't help but worry about another type of deficit. I worry that my generation's rising leaders are not developing all of the skills needed to run the society they will one day inherit.

When I read about my generation's most ambitious members, I recognize the types of young people that have surrounded me for the past several years. I understand today's most aspirant millennials because, for better or worse, they are a lot like me.

Today's highest achieving young people fit a certain profile. In elementary school they stressed over spelling tests, quizzed by parents who have more in common with Amy Chua than June Cleaver. In high school they filled the hours after school with music lessons, science teams, and volunteer organizations. Today they care as much about their resumes as their Facebook profiles. (Well, almost.)

In a seminal 2001 article titled "The Organization Kid," David Brooks described this group of overachievers as "professional students." These careerists, Olympians of the academic realm, eventually develop into Resume Gods: experts at classroom achievement, pleasing superiors, and assimilating to cultural institutions.

I was an Organization Kid, and I now find myself aspiring to become a Resume God. As I follow this route, I am continually astounded by the eager young millennials that I encounter. They are gifted, keen to help others, and aware that they benefit from a meritocracy far more equitable than the WASP aristocracy that preceded it.

The problem is that, while access to an exceptional American education has widened, that education itself is narrow. The structure responsible for selecting rising leaders defines merit with a particular set of values and a limited notion of achievement. The most successful students absorb that ideal and develop a corresponding set of talents.

So what are these values and what skills do they produce? I'll put it this way: the most acclaimed products of our education system have a lot more in common with the members of an orchestra than with its conductor. They have exceptional technical abilities, follow directions very well, and deftly blend in to a larger unit. Conductors, on the other hand, communicate easily, have compelling vision, and can assemble others into a coherent, meaningful whole. Our education system rewards excellent members of the orchestra, and so ambitious young people -- those who will one day run our cultural institutions -- focus on becoming just that.

And so I wonder: are our mechanisms for selecting and honing tomorrow's leaders actually preparing young climbers for the responsibility they will assume? Are the skills that help determined strivers leap through the highest and most distant hoops the same skills that we need in tomorrow's politicians and CEOs?

I'm not so sure. I think we can do more to ensure that our aspiring leaders develop more of the conductor's talents. First, they need to think innovatively. But that habit does not thrive in an education system that actively deters any form of risk-taking. Second, in order to connect and communicate with diverse colleagues, they need emotional intelligence and empathy. Technology may be changing the nature of our interpersonal interactions, but it is not making these encounters any less important. Third, they need a framework for thinking about moral issues; professional students are not taught how to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty.

Corporations are comparably small and can manage generational power transfer with detailed succession planning. Modern nations, on the other hand, leave the burden to select and train rising leaders with their education systems. But our system, though meritocratic, is flawed because its incomplete definition of merit produces incomplete leaders.

America's education system is good at turning its most ambitious students into virtuoso performers. But rising leaders need to be judged against more comprehensive criteria and develop a broader set of skills. To truly grow up, the 'Organization Kid' must become more than just a member of the orchestra.