By Mandi Stanley, CSP

For Student Leaders:
On Being a Small Fish in a Large Pond

Pretty much everything I learned about student leadership came seated at the feet of the late Dr. Donald W. Zacharias, then president of Mississippi State University.

In the spring of 1987, four Mississippi high school seniors were awarded the first ever Ottilie Schillig Leadership Scholarships: two from the greater Jackson area and two of us from small towns in northeast Mississippi. Among the many opportunities being a Schillig Scholar afforded, the privilege of monthly mentoring from the University president was far and away one of the most outstanding benefits. We soaked up every minute of his storytelling as well as debated leadership philosophies from such books as John W. Gardner’s Leadership Papers and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Those books are still on my bookshelf 25 years later, and Dr. Zacharias’s leadership lessons truly shaped my life’s trajectory.

The memories are vivid, however, because I was usually on the losing side of those debates. I was just a little girl from Amory, Mississippi—a small fish in a large ocean, so to speak—and I found out I had a lot to learn about leadership beyond my high school experience. Below are some of the misconceptions I had about leadership and how Dr. Zacharias set me straight.

Leadership Misconception #1: Leaders are born, not made.

I actually argued with the University president about this one, telling him that some people were just naturally born leaders and others weren’t. I was incorrect. Now I know all students have leadership potential; it just looks different on different people. Leaders don’t all fit into the same mold; your style could be large and in charge, or you may lead quietly from the sidelines. When you find your passion and do what you love, leadership opportunities tend to find you.

Leadership Misconception #2: Leaders lead and others follow.

Wrong again. Dr. Z was the first to introduce me to the concept of servant leadership. Several dozen books have been written about servant leadership in the years since then. In fact, leadership has often been analogized to the game of tennis: “Those who are best at serving usually lead.” Leadership is others centered, not self-centered. Pastor Rick Warren begins The Purpose-Driven Life by simply stating: “It’s not about you.” That’s one of the most impactful opening lines in any book—with the exception of “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Rotary International’s motto is “Service above self. He profits most who serves best.” The essence of leadership is service. Many times those working behind the scenes have more of a lasting impact than those in the limelight. True leaders seek to serve before being served. We look no further than Jesus, who epitomized servant leadership.

Leadership Misconception #3: Leadership means you serve as an officer in your organization.

You guessed it: incorrect. College-bound students, you will be availed of so many wonderful extracurricular activities and worthy organizations to join and ministries to become involved with during the next several years. You don’t have to be an officer to be considered a leader. In other words, you don’t have to have a title to lead. Fellow Certified Speaking Professional and friend Mark Sanborn, who is considered a thought leader on this subject, wrote a book by that same name several years ago. In You Don’t Need a Title To Be a Leader, he cites numerous examples of how anyone, anywhere can make a positive difference. Mark’s own mailman Fred modeled that truth. Mark may have written the book, but Dr. Z relayed that same leadership wisdom two decades earlier.

Leadership Misconception #4: Great leaders have a well thought-out plan and stick to it no matter what.

Ha! The four of us Schillig scholars entered MSU with preconceived career aspirations. Judy desired to be a physician, Joe studied aerospace engineering, Wade planned to be a NASA flight engineer and astronaut, and I enrolled in the School of Accountancy with the goal of being a CPA. Every single one of us detoured from our original plans. And that’s okay. Quite frankly, it’s a bit unrealistic to ask 17-year-olds to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. That decision-making process is a vital part of the total collegiate experience. It’s fine not to know right now. In our cases, the would-be physician (who detested chemistry and physics) enrolled in law school and works as an attorney. The aerospace engineer is a full-time professional corporate magician and mentalist who presents shows and workshops and amazes audiences on multiple continents. The NASA flight engineer graduated from medical school in orthopedic surgery, and I switched my major to English and communication and became a business author, corporate trainer, and certified speaking professional. I wasn’t even aware such a career existed when I was an undergrad.

So, I guess one of the most practical and tactical leadership lessons I learned from Dr. Zacharias is even the best-laid plans go awry. Tables turn. Detours happen. Plans can change overnight. But detours don’t mean death, and we shouldn’t view them with despair and disgust. Rather, they are open doors to a world of infinite possibilities. And that’s a leadership lesson that’s just as valid today as it was 25 years ago, whether you’re swimming in a small pond or a giant ocean.


Certified Speaking Professional Mandi Stanley travels throughout North America entertaining and educating business audiences. She authored The No-Panic Plan for Presenters: An A-to-Z Checklist for Speaking Confidently and Compellingly Anywhere, Anytime, which was named Finalist in the Career category at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in New York. Contact Mandi at