T.J. Sullivan

How “rock star” student leaders might hurt their organizations

Guest blog by Tom Healy of CAMPUSPEAK


It was a tradition in my fraternity that during the last chapter meeting, each graduating senior addressed the chapter with some final “words of wisdom.”  I could have spent hours talking about everything that I had learned, however I decided to convey one simple message – have no regrets.  I wanted everyone to take full advantage of all our campus had to offer: strong academic programs, tons of student organizations, a great social experience, endless opportunities for leadership and so much more.  My message was for each brother to get involved in as much as possible and give his absolute best to whatever he was doing at the moment.

I felt comfortable sharing this message with my brothers because I could honestly say that I had no regrets. I got involved in lots of organizations, took on multiple leadership positions, sat on a variety of councils, had a great social life and gave my best to each of them.  As I sit here five years after I gave that speech, I’ve realized that I do have one regret.  My one regret from those experiences is that I focused so much on doing everything and leading by example that I didn’t set up the next group of leaders to build on what I started.  I was so focused on being a “rock star” student leader that I didn’t put any systems in place for my organizations to succeed after I left campus.

Student organizations are like small businesses; to be successful, they must do things such as provide value, have great leadership, offer something that people want, effectively market themselves, have more money coming in than going out and implement a winning strategy.  The typical small business in this country fails 80-percent of the time, meaning that only 1 out of 5 actually succeeds.  Why do so many fail?  They fail because they have one or a few people running around haphazardly trying to do every function of the business.

Does this sound like some of the student organizations on your campus?

A much more successful business model is a systems-based franchise model that has a group of people working towards a common vision, each with a specific set of responsibilities.  These franchise models succeed 93-percent of the time, as opposed to a regular small business that succeeds 20-percent of the time.  Why is there such a huge difference?  Because a system can succeed without rock stars; a system simply needs average people executing specific responsibilities that contribute to the overall mission of the organization.

A great example of the franchise model is McDonalds.  When was the last time you saw the owner of a McDonalds running around the store frantically trying to do everything?  You have never seen it because the owner doesn’t do anything other than manage a system.  They find regular people and then give them specific responsibilities that collectively contribute to the mission of the company, which is providing fast, inexpensive and fresh food to its customers.  McDonalds owners love hearing “anyone could work at a McDonalds” because it proves that having a great system in place means that you don’t need to rely on one or two rock stars doing everything.

If you aren’t sure whether you are on the right track with your student organization, ask yourself one question – if you took away the top three leaders of the organization, would it fall apart?  If yes, then your organization is not a system, but rather a failing, unsustainable small business.

The lesson that I learned is that the best student leaders aren’t rock stars running around,  doing everything. The leaders who have the most impact are the ones who develop and manage a system that stays in place after they graduate – one that new leaders can step right into.  If you truly want to have an impact and leave a legacy in your organization, focus on building a system that empowers each member and gives each member specific responsibilities.  If I had to do it all over again, I would have made sure that each executive board member had a specific set of responsibilities, were well trained and confident, and that all other members also knew how they were needed to help us accomplish our mission and felt empowered to do so.


Tom Healy is a rock star member of the CAMPUSPEAK staff, serving as Recruitment Programs Specialist, heading up our Recruitment Boot Camp keynotes, workshops, coaching and consulting activities.  He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.  You can email Tom to learn more about RBC at healy@campuspeak.com.

9 Responses to “How “rock star” student leaders might hurt their organizations”

  1. Joshua Smialek says:

    I really enjoyed this posting because it rings so true to me. Thank you for the article, I will be sure to pass it along.

  2. Chelsie Southern Miss says:

    Yes, this is true. I feel that there are a lot of people who want to be the “rockstars” of their particular organizations and that’s totally great! The only problem is that sometimes they forget that newer members need a foundation built for them to aid in future success.

  3. Cori says:

    Great posting. Can Tri Sigma post it on our Facebook page today? We think it has such incredible relevance.

  4. Of course! Thanks.

  5. Mary QU says:

    So what’s next? How do we get our system in our Greek org running more efficiently? This article rings true to me!! SOS

  6. Emilie says:

    This post is extremely relevant in our organizations today. Often I spend time encouraging my outgoing officers to allow their new leaders to fail, and it’s a difficult concept to understand when they’re used to being the “rockstars” and doing it all. What we try to get them to realize is that by stepping back, they allow for younger, new rockstars to emerge!

  7. Elizabeth R. Southern Miss says:

    I completely agree that if you do not set up a system for those that follow behind you, you have not been an effective leader. In my opinion in order to be a leader you have to be willing to give up control of everything and implement a system. No one person can run an organization.

  8. Ramon G. says:

    I really agree with you on that. Its very important to be all you can be on campus and represent you organizations well. One of the key things to never forget is to groom a sucessor to follow in your foot steps or to at least make his or her on foot steps and become greater than you. That shows a great sign of leadership and alturism.

  9. ann saylor says:

    Great article! I totally agree & wish that every student leadership organization could read it!

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