POLSTON: How to foster leadership in young people

I have worked with young people for close to two decades, but I have never heard a parent, coach or teacher say they wanted a young person to be a follower.
Jul 11, 2014


My experience has demonstrated to me that adults want them to be leaders, and with good reason. Young people with leadership qualities tend to live healthier and happier lives, while experiencing greater levels of success. In many ways, it can be a defining characteristic of those that are successful. 

Is it possible for all young people to have leadership qualities? Further, how do we instill this critical trait into them?

Leadership is not an innate characteristic. We have all heard the phrase "born leader" describe those that naturally feel more comfortable standing out from the crowd. But just because someone is comfortable taking charge does not necessarily mean they are effective at leading others. (Take General George Custer for example.)

Leadership can be learned — and, therefore, it is open to all. Leaders come in many different shapes and sizes, and all walks of life. There is no single template for a good leader, further demonstrating the accessibility to all.

Developing leadership in young people is a process that unfolds over time with influence from several people and experiences. Vital to young people developing leadership qualities is allowing them to make decisions on their own, with guidance and support from caring adults.

No adult wants to purposely harm a child — but, at the same time, adults can be so overprotective that young people do not get the chance to stand on their own. There are always going to be decisions that are left to adults — but, whenever possible, we need to empower young people with decision-making opportunities.

Along with empowering young people with decision making, adults need to also be comfortable watching a young person fail. This means we stand back, not run to the rescue to prevent failure from happening, and provide love and support afterward.

Our society often equates failure as something to lower self-worth. However, it is the response to failure that will grow an individual's leadership capacity and their opportunities for success in the future. Intervening to "protect" young people from failure does far more harm than good.

Thomas Edison was fond of failure. When asked about the process for inventing the light bulb, he said: "I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb."

Leaders also have a clear definition of who they are and who they want to become. Young people may not know what they want to be when they grow up, but they should be able to explain who they are.

I often counsel young people to clearly define who they are and to not keep it a secret. Everyone around you should know who you are and what you are about. Unfortunately, it is not always that simple. Young people tend to define themselves by those around them. The social aspect can dictate the terms of the other components of their life, which puts priorities out of order.

To develop the self-definition of a leader with young people, provide opportunities for them to reflect. Examples include discussions in the car, a shared journal that a parent and child exchange, an adult and child volunteering together, or even blogging online.

During the reflection process, a young person can determine if they are defining themselves in the manner that they desire. If a gap exists between a young person's self-definition and the actions they choose to live up to that definition, it is key for an adult to mentor a child on the next steps. In this instance, the adult is not making the choice, but, rather, it is the guidance of the adult and the self-evaluation of the child that is guiding the path.

It may be a constant ebb and flow during the journey, but the end result will be a young person that has developed lifelong skills critical to leadership.

In order to have the safe, strong, and vibrant communities we all desire, we need leadership from everyone. We must make it a priority for individuals — but, most importantly, a necessity for our collective strength.

Kevin Polston is principal of Lakeshore Middle School.



Perhaps some chose not to lead,they still contribute.


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