Nurturing Leadership in Middle and High School Students

Suzanne M. Bean

Why Develop Leaders?

The process of becoming a leader holds many valuable lessons in life. Interpersonal skills are necessary in every aspect of human endeavor—at home, school, work, and in the social arena. As one’s leadership potential is nurtured, the ability to relate to others improves and skills in communication, conflict resolution, decision making, and goal achievement are refined. Initiative and responsibility increase, and self-concept and personal fulfillment flourish. Basic human needs of belonging, accomplishment, and reaching one’s potential can be realized through the development of leadership. Leadership skills can make the difference between talents being fully utilized or unfulfilled.

Leaders for the 21st century must be able to face complex challenges in an ever-changing world. There are fundamental changes in the economy, jobs, and businesses. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2008), the industrial economy based on manufacturing has shifted to a service economy driven by information, knowledge and innovation. The Framework for 21st Century Learning ( organizes learning around student outcomes in Core Subjects, 21st Century Themes, which are Learning and Innovation Skills, Information, Media, and Technology Skills, and Life and Career Skills. Leadership skills are integrated throughout this framework.

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink says the leaders of the 21st century will be creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. Leaders of the 21st century must also be able to embrace new forms of communication required by emerging technologies. From podcasts, twitter, and online communities to webcams and wikis, it will be necessary not only for leaders to communicate effectively with the people in the same building, city, and state; leaders of the future must also be able to communicate effectively and maintain relationships with online colleagues from across the globe.

The personal rewards for developing one’s leadership potential are many, but the societal benefits of effective leaders may be even more significant. The call for more effective leaders must not be ignored. Perhaps at no other time in history has there been a greater challenge for positive human interaction and ethical leadership. These goals are critical to the progress of humankind.

Trends in Leadership

An analysis of emerging trends in leadership prompts educators to recognize the link between leadership and emotional intelligence. Key leadership skills and perspectives are related to one’s intrapersonal skills (self knowledge and understanding) and one’s interpersonal skills (skills in building and maintaining relationships with others).

In 2007, researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership asked 247 senior executives around the globe about ten leadership trends. From this study, important patterns emerged focusing on talent, innovation, collaboration, and globalization. For instance, many organizations are bridging cultural, geographical, and functional boundaries, which require skills different from face-to-face leadership. The art of virtual leadership will require people who have exceptional written, oral, and technological communication skills. Today’s leaders also predict that the shift from autocratic to participative leadership will call for leaders who have the ability to collaborate and focus on the team rather than the individual. This new complex, global environment will increase the rise of multifaceted challenges calling for leaders who are creative thinkers able to adapt, navigate change, maintain focus, and above all else, build and maintain relationships in person and online.

The School’s Role in Cultivating Leaders

The goal of developing young leaders is of such critical importance to the individual and to society that it should be made an integral part of school. While it is also the responsibility of parents, communities and religious affiliations to develop leaders, the school environment is an ideal laboratory for creating young leaders in purposeful and intentional ways.

The following practical strategies are offered for incorporating leadership development in middle and high school settings:

Strategies for Teaching the Concept of Leadership

  1. Broaden students’ concept of leadership by helping them understand that authentic leadership has more to do with influence than who holds an appointed position, or who is popular, or who has the best grades, or who has the most money. Examine leadership from a psychological-sociological perspective. Help students see that leadership begins early, perhaps during the negotiation of playground equipment or during team work at school or chores at home. An expanded view recognizes that leadership permeates all dimensions of life, across all disciplines, ages, cultures, and socioeconomic levels of society.
  2. Collect and analyze all the leadership resources you can for your school. In this journal’s Bookcase section there are numerous commercially-prepared materials, websites and other resources for educators to use in schools.
  3. Explore the concept of leadership it as it relates to other themes of study in your school. For example, how is leadership connected to such timeless concepts of power, patterns, symbols, culture, change, ethics, etc. Study leadership in characters in literature or great leaders across fields of study. Study great leaders! How is a political leader similar to or different from a great leader in mathematics? How is a governmental leader similar to or different from a leader in visual and performing arts? What makes an unethical leader? Why do leaders fail?
  4. Study the history of leadership. How has leadership changed over time? From tribal leadership and “survival of the fittest” to the era of courts, kings, and queens, to today, how have people’s expectations of leadership changed? How are leadership styles in the United States of America similar to or different from leadership styles in other countries?

Strategies for Teaching the Art of Leadership

  1. Developing self understanding, intrapersonal skills, knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses can facilitate leadership growth every day. Learning style and personality inventories as well as informal psychological type or emotional intelligence assessments can be useful in helping students understand who they are and why they may react to certain people, places, and events in the way they do. Two great websites for this are and Intrapersonal skills and self-reflection can be further enhanced in the classroom by such activities as journaling and bibliotherapy.
  2. Today’s students need more opportunities to engage in meaningful activities with teams or groups. This allows teachers, and ultimately the students themselves, to determine how well one works with others. For example, if a student is too domineering, a know-it-all, a perfectionist, or too passive, self conscious, or a procrastinator, the student needs to learn to recognize this in himself/herself and understand how counter-productive these types of behaviors can be, particularly to others, and to the task of the group.
  3. Related to the art of working with others, students need the opportunity to see events from the perspective of another in order to be able to best understand and relate to others. Some children have a very difficult time with this skill, and they need plenty of chances to practice it! When conflicts arise in school, seize the opportunity to allow students to work through the problems themselves, rather than settling it right away for them. Also, when conflicts occur, it is a good idea to do some group reflection on the situation, looking back at how things might have been handled differently or what contributed to the situation getting resolved. This approach can help students see that there are different ways of working with people, and some are more successful than others.
  4. Many students have been trained to look for the “one right answer” when much of what is needed today is the skill of divergent thinking or looking for many possibilities. Find ways to incorporate meaningful creative thinking activities into the curriculum. Building this skill can also help keep students interested in producing new knowledge and finding new ways of doing things, rather than just learning what has been done and accepting the way things are as the way they must always be. Creative thinking can also help students in seeing the big picture of life, a vital talent for effective leaders.
  5. Find opportunities for students to demonstrate responsibility. You may have heard the saying, Success breeds success. This certainly applies when developing leaders. Find ways for students to show you that they can be successful at something, follow through with tasks, that they can achieve, and that they can be productive. This is the key to motivation!
  6. Older students may be challenged by developing plans of leadership, focusing on making a positive change in an area of the school, community, or religious affiliation. Identifying issues and problems, setting goals and objectives, planning a strategy for addressing these problems, and most importantly, following through with solving problems can be very productive way of experiencing leadership.
  7. Real life experiences such as mentorships and internships allow students to collaborate with adult leaders, and this can be a positive experience for both students and adult leaders. This is a good example of intergenerational collaboration as well.
  8. Build courage in students by encouraging them to try new things. Some students are so afraid of failure that they are paralyzed by perfectionism. Help them learn that failure can be a good thing when one learns from it!
  9. Encourage self-discipline in every aspect of school by teaching students about commitments…doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, whether you want to or not! This is a very important seed of growth for emerging leaders.
  10. Help students understand that every effective leader is able to listen and to follow when necessary. This may be challenging for some but it is a critical component of leadership development.
  11. Promote goal setting and a sense of autonomy. All too often we coddle students and rob them of the opportunity to be independent learners. Give them the chance to try.
  12. Expose students to leadership opportunities outside of school such as youth leadership conferences, seminars, and weekend and summer programs offered through college and universities and other community organizations.

The most important goal is to create interest in the concept of leadership and help students to become more active and reflective in their individual pursuits of leadership potential. This goal requires support and commitment from all educators. Intentional and creative approaches to leadership development must be pursued vigorously by those interested in the challenge. ♦

*Parts of this article will appear in Leadership for Students: A Practical Guide for Ages 8 – 18, 2nd Edition, by F.A. Karnes and S.M. Bean (forthcoming), Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Dr. Suzanne Bean, Director of the Roger F. Wicker Center for Creative Learning at Mississippi University for Women, has researched leadership development for the past 20 years. She can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Nurturing Leadership
Nurturing Leadership
Summer 2009