by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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At a recent youth leadership development training that I was conducting with a group of middle schoolers, I started with a simple request to the group: “Raise your hand if you are a leader at this school.” Not one hand went up in the group of 40 students. I went immediately to a second request: “Raise your hand if you are a leader in your classrooms.” Again not a single hand went up. I rolled right into my third request: “Raise your hand if you are a leader in your community.” Still the hands remained lowered at the students’ sides. Onto my fourth request: “Raise your hand if you are a leader in your family.” Finally a few hands in the group went up. I went to a couple of the kids who had raised their hands and asked them how they were the leader in their family. One of the kids responded: “Well I’m not the leader all the time, but sometimes my mom has to work at night and so I am home with my younger brother and sisters. When she is gone I am in charge so then I am the leader.” The other kids who had raised their hands nodded their heads in agreement with this kid’s response.
What happened during this training is a perfect illustration of the difficulty that kids have with the concept of leadership. When you ask a group of kids about leadership, they immediately see leadership as authority. To kids, the only leaders are authority figures. If you are not an authority figure like a principal, coach, teacher, or parent, then you cannot be a leader. None of the kids raised their hand that they are the leader in their school, classroom, or community. This is because there are clear authority figures in charge in each of these settings. The only kids who raised their hands for leadership in their families were older siblings who at times were ‘put in charge’ of their younger siblings. This is all about authority, yet leadership has nothing to do with authority.
Every school has some sort of student leadership group, whether it is student council, student government, ASB, or school ambassador programs. So if kids think that only authority figures can be leaders, then they are going to struggle with the concept of student leadership. If they don’t see themselves as leaders without authority over others, then how are they going to be effective as student leaders? This is one of the biggest struggles for the teachers and advisors that lead these student groups. When I talk with them, they are constantly sharing their issues with getting the student leaders to take initiative and lead programs and activities. This is because kids are stuck in the mindset that an adult is in charge and so student leadership is impossible.
The reality is that leadership and authority are not the same concept. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not automatically the same thing. You hope that your authority figures are also leaders, but you also hope that non-authority figures can take on leadership roles as well. The concept of leadership vs. authority is the central reason why I ask kids in these trainings the questions that I shared in this blog. We talk about the Battle Royale, all WWE style, which exists between leadership and authority. The first step to getting kids to see themselves as leaders is to break down the notion that only adults and authority figures can be leaders. Leadership is about moving with people towards a shared vision for success. Authority is about one person who has power telling everyone to move. Kids need to understand the difference between these concepts.
The next step is to get kids to think outside the box with their own leadership. It is about getting them to look at situations in their life where they rely on an authority figure for direction, and working through ways that they can take on leadership in those situations. Now this type of work can often cause the authority figures in these groups to be a little worried. The fear for authority figures is that if we teach kids how to be leaders, they will no longer listen to the authority figure. The fear really is centered on losing power, but if we truly want kids to develop their own leadership capacity, we have to get them to understand that leadership and authority are separate concepts. Both are important. Both are needed. But ultimately they are not the same, which means any kid can take on leadership in the situations where it is most needed. The key to their growth as leaders is for them to understand that they don’t have to be the authority figure to be a leader of a group. Understanding this concept will lead to greater student leadership and more successful student leadership groups.