Cybersecurity Club Survival Guide: Leadership Methodologies for Running an Effective Cybersecurity Club

Our application was rejected, again. They said we must have a faculty sponsor. Why do we need faculty involved in a student club? Where are we going to find a sponsor?

Students come and go. Some drop out, some wander off, some just get too busy or behind in their studies. New students arrive with ideas that go in a completely different direction. The one constant that the club has, the anchor for the whole organization, is the faculty. The faculty keeps the program going.

That is not to say that they are the leader. I firmly believe that student clubs should have student leadership. This gives them the opportunity to find their leadership styles, practice management skills, and learn new soft skills. A good cybersecurity club has loads of opportunities with easy on-ramps that allow new students to immediately begin to contribute. Too often we focus on the club President when each position requires time and talent.

There are many different leadership styles. You will want to pair the right style with a faculty sponsor. What do I mean leadership styles? Let’s look at a few and see if your club identifies with one type, or maybe a combination of types.

Democratic Style

The most common by far is a democracy. The ideals of fairness, equal say, equal representation, and equal opportunity are very attractive. In a democratic style of leadership, the idea is to create a big open space for discussions and voicing opinions. To create this open space, it is imperative that every voice is valued equally. This is much harder to attain than it sounds!

One of the challenges of a true democratic style is that without a leader, discussions tend to become circular, repeating back on themselves or drifting without a purpose. If your club feels very friendly, but that it might not be actually going anywhere, you may be seeing some of the negative sides of democratic leadership.

It seems like it takes forever to make a simple decision. Our meetings go on and on, but I don’t know if we actually do anything. It feels like everyone just has to say something, even if someone has already said it.

That is not to say that democratic leadership always works this way. In smaller groups, it can be quite effective since once a decision is made, it has built momentum and commitment. No one feels like they must shout to be heard. Democratic leadership can generate very creative ideas and solutions. 

If there is an appointed student leader, their role is largely administrative. This can result in a lot of turnover. For this reason, the best faculty to pair with a democratic style of leadership takes on the primary role of administrator. They ensure fairness and neutrality, and individually work with club members that may not be as outgoing, while encouraging the more outgoing and senior members to make room on the stage for newcomers. They work with college staff and other faculty to ensure that the club has adequate resources to accomplish their goals. The goal of the faculty is not to build leadership as much as it is to coach good teamwork skills.

Oligarchical Style

The oligarchical style is very task-oriented. Each member has a role and specific duties and knows their exact place in the club. Typically, students will promote based on how long they have been with the club, and the roles they have previously filled. Those that commit more or perform well are rewarded with more responsibility. 

In a volunteer organization, this encourages continual participation. However, in a student organization, it can cause additional stress and if students feel overwhelmed they will simply disappear. 

Where is Robert? He used to come all the time. I haven’t seen him in weeks! Wasn’t he supposed to be in charge of getting a speaker for the next meeting? As a matter of fact, didn’t we used to have 30 people? Only the same ten keep showing up anymore.

Another problem with this type of leadership is that promotions may be handed out to members that share common beliefs, attitudes, backgrounds, or abilities… or in other words, friendships. This can create an impression of favoritism, real or perceived, and is a barrier to new members feeling welcome or engaged. Again, a good indicator this may be happening is when members just drift away. Particularly dangerous is when people feel like opportunities are handed out based on gender, race, or other bias.

The role of the faculty in this leadership style is to be the one handing out the promotions. This allows them to ensure equal representation, and become a confidant that students feel comfortable to approach with concerns such as under representation or being overwhelmed by their work/student/life balance. The faculty member must make it clear that they are supportive of diversity and representation and encourage such behavior within the club.

Leadership by Default

In this style, members choose their own activities and level of involvement. Leaders change often, and positions and titles mean very little. When members want to participate more or take on a bigger challenge, it is not seen as a threat, but adding strength to the club. All participation is valued, regardless of how much or how little the contribution is.

Volunteers are not paid. We pay them with appreciation, recognition, and gratitude. This kind of organization spends as much time and money on the members of the club as it does in community enrichment or outreach.

At the first meeting I decided to take on the challenge of updating the website. The problem is, that I really have no idea what I am doing, and there is no one to ask!

Leadership by default does not have a strong leader to motivate and influence students. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for a faculty sponsor to take on this role. The faculty should be expert in one or many areas and understand that their role should be focused on student development. As students take on big challenges, the faculty is there to coach and instruct. They are not there to promote their own ideas or goals for the club. The students decide every activity and the faculty is there to provide technical expertise and support.

Servant Leadership

This is a pretty popular buzz term these days. The management section bookshelves of any modern bookstore are littered with books that are based on servant leadership. The basic concept is that mangers push, leaders pull. Especially true in volunteer organizations, you cannot push students to do what you want them to do. This creates conflict. Like a dogsled team, everyone pulls. There is lead dog out front, but they are not the only one pulling. I like to call this the “one hand up, one hand back” style of leadership. As you gain in knowledge in skill, there is a desire to reach back and help others that stand where you once were.

The goal of leadership is not to accumulate power, but authority. Loyalty comes from appreciating others and encouraging them. Reputation is everything. Servant leaders seek out opinions that differ from their own but are skilled in managing conflict. Conflict is viewed as contrary to the club’s goals.  A feeling of mutual respect and well-being permeates servant leadership organizations.

I joined the club to learn cybersecurity, but it seems like we spend a lot more time talking about the best way to do things, instead of just doing them. I feel like I am learning a lot about teamwork and management, but hardly anything technical.

Servant leadership can get lost in its own idealism. Decisions take a painfully slow time to agree on, and too much focus can be spent on well-being – to the detriment of gaining technical skills. A sponsor is aware of this, and their role is to take the input from the group and turn it into cohesive goals and tasks. Senior students with a solid reputation become the front line leaders that the sponsor meets with regularly.

Transformational Leadership

The last leadership style that I would like to discuss is ethic-based. Roles are modeled by leaders with highly ethical behavior and transparency. Focus is constantly on the long-term vision and leaders promote this vision by ensuring that all the club activities support it. These are great organizations for outreach-based and community service groups. Like a democratic style, an open environment is encouraged, but challenges are a welcome check to overreach and power.

We hardly ever have meetings, but we have a ton of activities. Sometimes I have no idea what is going on. We have run three job fairs, had a community green recycling pickup, a cybersecurity shred day, and we are working on providing a virus cleanup and remediation service free to the community.

It takes an inordinate amount of organizational skill and management to run such a club. It takes a very strong leader that is capable of not only seeing the big picture, but modelling ethical behavior and building teams with limited funding. This might be the most challenging of leaderships styles to implement. It often is blended with other types of leadership styles.

Faculty has the difficult task of finding and building the next leader. It takes time to find and develop such a leader, and the faculty spends most of their time on one or two individuals. They must model such behavior themselves, as that is the way to teach it to others.

Pairing faculty with your type of organization can be difficult, but as you can see, each type of leadership style requires a different type of sponsor. For faculty that wish to create a cybersecurity club, they should examine their own time, commitment level, and strengths to set the tone for the appropriate leadership style. It can be hard to bolt-on just any faculty to an existing club, but even harder to create a club and dictate to students what the style will be.

The reality usually requires a compromise or blend of styles and types of faculty. When you see the red flags mentioned here, the fault could be improperly applied leadership for the style, or a collision of two styles that do not mesh well together. With effort, any type of leadership style can be learned. If you recognize your own style in the types mentioned above, consider all the strengths and weaknesses that come along with the application of that style.

Thanks for following this series! If you missed a post, here are the links to the other posts:

Cybersecurity Club Survival Guide: How to Create and Run an Effective Cybersecurity Club

Cybersecurity Club Survival Guide: How to Create a Statement of Purpose and Draft a Charter for a New Cybersecurity Club

‘Mako’ McGill

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