How Can We Cultivate Student Leaders Now?

It doesn’t take very long to scroll through LinkedIn to find a post on what makes an effective leader. Great leaders, we are told, are supposed to be empathetic, humble, inspiring, accountable. They should empower others and lead from the back while finding success in other people’s goals and achievements. Leadership should come from everywhere, not just those on top of the food chain. Based on this narrative, leadership in the twenty-first century is about creating and nurturing a context for everyone within a group or organization to learn, have agency, and develop their strengths. Admittedly, this is a vulgar simplification of tremendously complex psychological and sociological concepts, but even so, this reduction allows us to appreciate that, while leadership may come more naturally to some, it may also consist of skills that can be honed—particularly if we buy into the notion that leaders are life-long learning. Taking the argument further, if leadership is partly composed of skills, these have to be practiced in order to be perfected—whether you need the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell averaged is a different story, but no one disputes that lots of practice leads closer to expertise.

The problem is that young minds have surprisingly few opportunities to practice leadership, that is, to engage in meaningful experiences that allow them to make a real impact as leaders. Many of these opportunities, found within a school context for example, are largely fenced off, with false or trifling choices to make: which design should go on a t-shirt? what name should we call ourselves? or what theme should we have for the dance? While there is value in the procedure behind these choices—for example, participating in a vote, convincing others of one’s position among several, or finding creative outlets and building school spirit—the reality is that when the room for choice is caught between two colors on a poster or what food to serve at an event, there will never be meaningful and long-lasting impact on anyone or anything. For leadership skills to develop within the youth, there needs to be a certain level of authenticity, something that reflects what happens in the adult world. While deciding on which theme to have for an event is a question that often comes up in the workplace, it is usually a low level thinking process. We need to raise the ceiling on youth leadership.

In order to develop leadership skills, students actually need to be given real opportunities to lead, through meaningful experiences, where adults model the dispositions and processes involved in effective leadership. One of the main obstacles is that many adults don’t have faith in students, believing that when you’re under 18, you’re too inexperienced, too vulnerable, too irresponsible, or too ignorant to take on authentic leadership roles. The result is a scarcity of experiences to take on authentic leadership roles, which in itself makes it difficult to hone skills, which reinforces the perception that students cannot be entrusted with real leadership opportunities. From this, a vicious circle is drawn.

When we are not fettered by this lack of faith and we provide students with opportunities for authentic leadership, advocacy, and power to make meaningful impact, boys and girls see their confidence, their ability to problem-solve, their influencing skills, and their empathy increase dramatically. If we create a mentorship—or better yet an apprenticeship—model to scaffold learning, we can nurture a safe environment in which students can learn to be leaders in ways that are more efficient and more transferrable. This is nothing more than the application of Vygotsky’s theory of proximal development to the field leadership, which, as we have argued, is partly composed of skills that are learned, practiced, and honed.

Providing authentic experiences for students to hone the skills of leadership has long term benefits for the individual, of course, but the whole of society. Youth leadership allows for better decision-making, more public engagement, higher levels of social justice, increased productivity, higher quality creativity, and countless other positive outcomes that follow the empowerment of the generation that will, one day soon, take the helm of the public and private sectors. 

We don’t have to wait for the next generation to take over. These benefits can take almost immediate effect. Executives today are most concerned with their fresh graduate employees’ lack of communication skills*. More than content knowledge or technical knowhow, employers want contributors with the ability to influence others, to create and leverage networks, and to develop relationships—the main purposes of communication. Employers question whether there are enough opportunities within most schools’ curricula to develop real, authentic opportunities to hone communication skills. If schools are restricted by their traditional objectives and outcomes, how can students get the practice they need to develop their leadership skills? Answering this question is critical to ensuring that students are prepared for the workplace of 2020 as well as 2030.

We need to create real opportunities for students to gain experience in leadership within schools’ curricula, but also within co-curricular activities. During the school day, students should be empowered to demonstrate mastery in ways that that produce outcomes that are meaningful to them, that allow them to influence others and have impact on their surroundings, and that facilitate the transfer their knowledge and skills to new areas. In other words, curriculum needs to ensure that students learn skills and develop competencies that prepare them to be leaders. Content-driven curricula that value low level thinking and the memorization of content will not prepare the leaders of tomorrow to develop any of the skills necessary to be effective. Similarly, co-curricular activities need to allow students to tackle real world projects and challenges, guided by adults so that boys and girls can learn through modeling. 

Developing young leaders is not a sideline activity. It is a set of empowering contexts that use every experience the young individual has throughout their day to be a source of learning. It is about agility in finding opportunities to develop competencies. By trusting students with authentic experiences to be leaders—ones where there are real choices—we will create this virtuous cycle of trust and growth that will benefit every sector of society and business, and of course the individual himself.


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