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Why K-12 learners deserve a chance at leadership

March 30, 2021

Is there anything more discussed in business schools (or on LinkedIn for that matter) than leadership? The research, the theories, the approaches, the language, the coaching practices; all of it seems to automatically equate leadership with the adult world.

But yet leadership, says Harvard, is something that can be developed from any age. As the traditional associations of leadership break up and broaden out to be far more inclusive, some schools and organisations are really supporting their learners to think about it in their early teens.

As education begins to move (slowly) out of the top-down industrialized model, and focus on empowering learner voice and choice, leadership development is a natural fit. So how does this look in practice? We feel that two particular approaches to leadership are most effective for K12 schools: values-based leadership and social leadership. So what is wrong with the way we do things now?

The standard approach to leadership in schools

The way leadership has traditionally been approached for a long time now in schools, is simply to give learners more responsibility. This might begin with being class monitors at a young age, or being selected as organizers of a fund-raising event.

In high schools, learners might find themselves being invited to meetings of the school council, becoming class president, or perhaps a prefect. One thing that is noticeable in reading many of these role descriptions on school websites, however, is that the lists of responsibilities is not supported by and kind of mentoring or scaffolding to reflect and build competence in the leadership space.

Learners volunteer, or are voted into leadership positions. This naturally favours certain learners, for whom confidence, for example, is not in short supply. We are generalizing of course, but the point is that this approach to leadership is certainly not supporting young people to find out what is inside them and develop it. Instead, it identifies learners who fit certain criteria already and further validates those behaviors by conferring responsibility upon them.

There is a huge amount missing here, and more progressive approaches to leadership development are not focused on roles of responsibility. They are focused firstly on learning what is inside us and what we might have to offer the world, before we decide what to do with it.

Leadership 1

Values-based leadership: a case study

Columba 1400 is an education charity working with Scottish schools for the last 20 years. Since day one, they have focused on "bringing out the greatness" inherent in each individual, by supporting them to discover their own values. They work with groups of around 15 learners each time; a diverse mixture of students, ranging from those who would readily volunteer for roles of responsibility, to those who would rarely speak up in class at all.

We have written here about how central a role values play in everything we do at NEO Academy, and Columba 1400 are like-minded. Their own values of awareness, focus, integrity, creativity, perseverance, and service, form the core of the Young People's Leadership Academies they run on a remote Scottish island, and in the heart of local communities.

By supporting young people to develop an awareness of who they are, and what they want to offer, they can understand what it is they want to focus on. The Leadership Academy experience works its way through to the value of service, and this is where purpose connects to action. This, here, is the nexus of true leadership, for how can anyone give to others without knowing themselves first?

They return to the school community and are supported in partnership with the school to lead change within their community. This is not the tokenistic inclusion of "student voice" within the school leadership, but rather the learners themselves identifying where and how they feel they can best make a difference, and meeting that challenge head-on.

Reflection and collaborative practices are inbuilt so that self-awareness is developed in a way that will benefit these young people far beyond their school years. As Scotland is set to enshrine the UN convention on the Rights of the Child into law, the right to be heard, and to play a part in all matters affecting you as a young person, will settle the matter once and for all.

The society of the future is already here and desperately needs self-directed and purposeful young people to know where they can make an impact and who have the conviction to see it through and build something better. That can only ever come if you are first supported and given space to find out what lies inside you.

Leadership 2

Social leadership: a case study

Social leadership is about putting your skills and knowledge into action to positively impact the community around you. Typical approaches to this form of leadership are in collaboratively identifying a need in the community around you, and working together to find a way to tackle it.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of focus is given to communication skills, as listening to others, building consensus and inspiring others to follow you is definitely going to require some rhetorical dexterity. Creativity is also a centrepiece of social leadership as you are generally involved in meeting complex challenges with a lot of moving parts.

But there's something else. Social leadership has a magic power, and that lies within the brain itself. It feels good to do good. Smile, and the world smiles with you. Yes, it is widely accepted that generosity and kindness produce a "helper's high" in the giver, as well as making the recipient feel pretty good too. Studies on the empathy-altruism quotient have concluded that helping others is positively associated with longevity and self-confidence.

This is why organizations like entreamigos in Mexico provide young people from areas of multiple deprivation with social leadership training. Through sponsorship from a wide range of funders, young people can access mentoring and workshops (delivered by other social leaders) to build confidence and competence that turns into action. They are supported, and then support others in turn, so that the effect ripples outwards in their community.

The point here, and it is a crucial one, that for young people from challenging realities, rather than us finding ways to simply give support, we should go one step further. It is more effective to empower these young people to contribute to others. The sense of relevance and purpose, of achievement and belonging, of connection and contribution: we are hard-wired for this, and there is literally no downside.

We need the leadership of young people

There is always so much debate on what teenagers are "able" to do, and what they should be "allowed" to do. The furore over lowering the voting age to 16 has caused high blood pressure in a great many guardians of tradition. The question, however, is not what 16-year-olds are capable of organically, but rather who they might be given the space and support to flourish.

Is it that we remember ourselves at this age and project that construct onto the young people of today? Is it that we expect from them only what we ourselves might have experienced before the new age of technology or the progression in K12 education and social awareness?

The world is changing, and fast. Go to any learning environment where the learning is self-directed (or firmly learner-centered at the very least), and observe. Just listen to these young people at Learnlife in Barcelona, talking about their own learning processes with a greater awareness than many people their senior.

On climate change, social justice and education, we are not doing terribly well as adults. Let's admit that we need young people to show us the way forward; as yet unhindered by all of the cynicism and deeply engrained habits that we as adults must struggle to unlearn. When leadership opportunities are truly afforded to the next generation, and the torch is passed, they will not let us down. They are not too young, and they may yet remind us that we are not yet too old to change our own paths.

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