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Building leadership capacity in students

By Staff | May 26, 2011

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams

As I digest the news of regime changes and new leadership in many areas of the world, witness CEOs and elected officials taking on new responsibilities, or ponder the decision-making of our elected officials, I’m drawn to the key question of how societies build competent leadership. People don’t just wake up one morning wearing the mantle of leadership with all its responsibilities.  

Good leadership doesn’t just happen. It is nurtured and grows over time with the development of competencies and confidence. I would venture that most leaders discover their desire to lead others in school. It is the elements of success running school events, organizing students and fund-raising for projects that often start a student on the path to leadership. 

Schools have the potential to enable students to build leadership capacity through the development of group projects requiring significant planning, problem solving, team building, delegation, assumption of responsibilities, use of analytical skills, budget management and communication skills. Students can acquire an excellent background and variety of experiences in schools, from small group projects to the more formal student government experience. The more opportunities that students elect to get involved in, the more likely they are to develop the critical skills that will see them through as leaders throughout life.  

Over the years, I have worked with some amazing student leaders in both middle and high school and witnessed remarkable kids leading others in grades all the way down to kindergarten. In many situations, a kind word of encouragement from a teacher or advisor was the impetus for the student to take that first step toward leadership. Just the suggestion that “I think you would be a good leader or class president” or “I think you should run for office” can plant the seed, assuming an adult other than a parent sees and encourages this capacity. As students experience the taste of success or a small bit of recognition, it becomes easier to encourage them to take on ever-increasing responsibilities. School is a perfect place for young people to develop their leadership skills under the guidance of a teacher or advisor.   

Student leaders really arrive when they recognize that a good leader can build and shape a jointly-held vision, recruit others to take on pieces of the project, match the real talents of their team members to the necessary tasks, encourage participation from those who are reluctant and acknowledge those who make a project a success. These fully developed student leaders accomplish much for their fellow students, their schools and their communities.

Most of my professional career has been spent in small independent schools. These schools offer most of the same leadership opportunities as larger schools. The difference is that, due to size, every student in a small school has the chance to take on multiple leadership roles. Again and again, kids perform as academic leaders, captain athletic teams, launch community service initiatives, edit the yearbook and even mentor or peer-counsel other students. 

A school full of leaders has a unique quality as those leaders become visionaries examining ways in which they can improve their school. With coaching from administrators and advisors, they take real ownership of the school and are empowered to do what other schools might think is beyond the capacity of these emerging young adults. 

I feel extremely fortunate to work today in one such school community — a school in which our student leaders design and execute projects that become school traditions, raise thousands of dollars for charities, organize campus work days, revise student handbooks and have a voice in the hiring practices for the school. Given the opportunity, these student leaders relish the responsibility and are a driving force on the Maui Prep campus. 

Many of these same students will go on to be leaders on their college campuses and, eventually, when they enter their professional lives, will make a positive impact on their businesses, non-profits and larger communities. Students who acquire a strong foundation in school will continue taking leadership roles when presented with the opportunity and will often seek those opportunities. A society that fosters and develops good leaders in schools will benefit from having good leaders at all levels, from local to national. In fact, our future depends on it!