5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader


There’s a movie that came out in 2010 with Nicholas Cage called “Kick-Ass.” It’s basically a story of a nerdy high school kid and comic book fan named Dave Lizewski that gets robbed. Eventually, he decides to become a superhero named “Kick-Ass” to fight crime throughout the city without any superpowers or special training. Obviously it’s a fantastic and funny story, but it’s the story of an ordinary kid that creates his own destiny by becoming a homegrown superhero. It’s the story of someone that can do great things and influence others by being “kickass.”

As student leaders, there are many things that you can and should do to be truly kickass.

Secret #1: Create the change that you want to see. Mahatma Ghandi is credited with saying, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” The concept is very simple, but yet very profound, particularly on a college campus. This essentially means that if there’s something you don’t like, change it! If there’s something you would like to see, create it!

If you don’t like the clubs that are offered, create a new one. If you don’t like something on campus, participate in or create a committee to research and suggest new ideas and options. Want to participate in a new campus-wide initiative or project? Create a proposal and approach administrators and faculty to see if they can support you.

As students, you have more power than you think you do. You are the reason why colleges and universities exist, and the reason why people like me have a career. Wield that power to make a difference not only in your life, but the lives of others, and the quality of the academic and student life experience here on campus.

Be a kickass leader by creating the change you want to see.

Secret #2: Stand out from others. Over the past 15 years, I have supervised hundreds of student employees across the country at five different colleges and universities. When I recruit and interview, I always ask, “What are you involved with on campus, and what have you done?”

I always hear, “Well…I am the president of the biology club … and a representative on student government …” That’s great…but what did you do? What have you influenced? What have you changed? What have you created? Leadership isn’t merely a grocery list of activities on a co-curricular transcript or resume. Leadership is about enacting change and leaving a legacy.

Also, quantify your experiences. Set goals, and upon achieving those goals use statements on your resume and in interviews such as, “I helped to raise $10,000 for a local charity … We served over 500 meals at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving … I presented at a regional conference to over 100 session attendees …” and other impressive accomplishments.

Stand out from others. It’s easy to be great when others are mediocre.

Be a kickass leader by standing out from others.

Secret #3: Read about and become an expert on leadership. Your education doesn’t stop when you graduate from college. As someone looking to get a job after graduation, you need to be able to communicate that you know about your career field and can bring actual value to their organization. You can’t be an innovator and a true leader if you don’t know what’s occurring around you.

Take the time and spend the money to join and participate in professional organizations. Read their publications. Use social media to connect with others in your field from around the globe. Subscribe to blogs, follow industry leaders on Twitter, and attend the multitude of free webinars that are presented every day on almost any topic you can imagine. Books and articles on leadership and supervising people are published every day. If you’re not constantly ahead of the curve, others will be and inevitably will be more marketable.

Be a kickass leader by reading about and becoming an expert on leadership.

Secret #4: Seek out a quality mentor. A mentor can be a professor, a staff member, a club or organization advisor, a spiritual leader, or even someone you’ve networked within your chosen career field. Think of a mentor like having your own private secret weapon for success. And when I say “quality mentor,” I mean someone who cares about you as a person and your success. A mentor is not someone who will only give you five minutes of their time and otherwise treat you like you are a distraction.

 A mentor is someone who will not only give you good advice, but will help you seek out networking opportunities, includes you in on collaborative projects, such as research, conference presentations, and employment opportunities. A mentor is someone you can vent to and bounce ideas off of. A quality mentor is also someone who doesn’t pretend to know it all; a person that will guide you in the right direction if they don’t have a direct answer. A quality mentor is someone that you can look to throughout your lifetime as you progress through your career.

Be a kickass leader by having a quality mentor.

Secret #5: Remain humble. I strongly believe in the mantra of civility, integrity, and responsibility. I think these are the attributes of what makes a great leader. If I could add one more attribute to the list of civility, integrity, and responsibility, it would be humility. People appreciate and admire those leaders who don’t take all the credit, are courteous, and make those around them feel appreciated and respected.

One of my favorite books is “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” by Dr. Robert Sutton from Stanford University. Dr. Sutton’s premise is that bullying behavior in the workplace kills morale and productivity. He uses the word “asshole” because other terms, such as bully or jerk does not have the same impact.

Two tests are specified to recognize this type of person: After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated, or otherwise worse about themselves? — and — Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her? You can probably name multiple individuals that you deal with on a weekly basis that fit these criteria. DON’T BE LIKE THEM!

It’s easy to be in control and push people around, but it takes a true leader to be civil and gracious and, most importantly, humble.

Be a kickass leader by remaining humble.

What are some other ways to be a kickass leader? Please share your comments below.

You can also see a video of Dr. Helfrich giving a speech on 5 Secrets to Becoming a Kickass Leader.

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