Identifying prospective student leaders is tricky task for teachers.

It’s a mistake to focus on helpfulness in students in the hope that it will automatically transfer to leadership.

While helpfulness, kindness, empathy and other pro social qualities may make for wonderful citizens, on their own they don’t make for great leadership.

However, with the right strategies in place students can make the leap from reliable helpers to highly effective leaders. Here’s how.


1. Put student leadership under the spotlight.

I always begin my workshops with prospective student leaders with a simple question: What does a leader do?”

The discussions that follow are enlightening, revealing a great deal about the student leadership development work they’d received.

Most responses are variations of these four ideas – 1. “A leader is a good role model.” 2. “A leader is a good helper” 3. “A leader is a boss.” 4. “A leader is good at sport/performance/studies.”

These responses, while technically correct, show a shallow level of leadership understanding.

However, on occasions the responses refreshingly showed a depth of understanding, which could be attributed to astute leadership development they’d received. These responses included:

  1. “A leader is someone who represents the school and shows them how to do the right thing.”
  1. “Leaders form teams and get things done that help others.”
  1. “Leaders speak in front of others (in many ways and for many purposes).”
  1. “Leaders are people that others look up to and want to be like.”

These responses show knowledge of leadership concepts such as representation, delegation, team building, communication skills and modelling- different parts of the student leadership framework.

They also showed that some work had been done at a school level to build a conceptual understanding of leadership in students.


2. Promote personal initiative at every opportunity.

 In my student leadership workshops taking initiative is an early indicator of real leadership potential.

The workshop activities are structured in such a way that students are invited to step up (volunteer to talk in front of others, solve problems, form a group to complete a task) and into the role of leader.

The step from helper to leader requires opportunities for students to take the initiative to form a group, be pro-active and problem-solve.

Experiential learning is at the heart of effective student leadership development. 


3. Give plenty of opportunities to lead, solve problems and serve the community.

Leadership is difficult to teach but easy to develop when suitable opportunities are provided for students.

Teachers who wish to develop student leadership agency should provide students with real life opportunities and projects to serve their communities, work through problems and challenges together and adopt different roles in ways that offer authentic, meaningful development.

Also giving students opportunities to set goals, make plans, evaluate progress and reflect on their learnings are essential for real student leadership development.


4. Develop self-leadership first.

The development of self-knowledge is at the heart of student efficacy yet too often we promote external leadership factors (such as teamwork rather than friendship skills) first.

Some students shut down – they won’t talk, form a group, accept a challenge – because they haven’t developed leadership proficiency in the personal domain bfore being exposed to leadership in a public sense. 

Start by developing leadership skills and proficiencies on a personal level before opening students up to leadership in the public domain. This means leadership development begins early in a child’s school life building on many of the social and emotional skills that are necessary for student success.

The Young Leaders Program formally begins in the second last year of primary school with a focus on developing personal leadership skills before moving onto to public leadership in the final year.


5. Promote self-awareness and emotional regulation.

Lack of emotional awareness stymies leadership development.

Inversely, emotional awareness helps students understand themselves including what excites and enthuses them as well as those activities, situations and people that cause anxiety and bring tension.

Developing leadership skills without including emotional awareness is like giving a sailor a yacht with only one sail. It will be fine while the weather holds but they will be at the mercy of the wind in stormy weather.

Similarly, without the ability to recognise and regulate their own emotional states students will be at the mercy of their own emotions when they meet with difficulties and challenges in their roles.  This will result in either underestimating or overrating the scale of challenges they will face.


6. Teach students to manage time and people around competing priorities.

The trend toward smaller families and the propensity for adults to organise children’s live has lead to a deterioration in students’ organisational and personal management skills.

This hampers leadership development as both time management and people management are needed for effective leadership.

Any program that develops leadership must provide students with experience in these vital areas.


 7. Develop empathetic, informative, representational communication skills.

To speak in public or not to speak, that is the question.

Okay, Hamlet didn’t say those words but the prospect of speaking in public prevents many potential leaders from stepping up to the leadership plate.

Public speaking is only one part of the leadership communication matrix, but it’s a vital part indeed. Being able to inform, to give messages others will respond to and to be able to represent the thoughts and feelings of others is at the heart of great leadership.

These skills start in primary school when students are primed developmentally to gain agency and efficiency in communicating with others.

Sadly, we have neglected these skills for far too long.


From helper to leader in leaps and bounds

These principles and the activities that promote them, will help you transform students with a propensity to help into responsible, dynamic, benefit-focused leaders invested in themselves, their school and their communities.

Great leaders are needed in all walks of life – in schools, the workplace, in families and communities. Developing leaders is a vital community service.

It’s exciting to think that you have a hand in shaping not only your school’s leadership culture, but the leaders of tomorrow and the skills and attributes that they will use to shape their social environments.


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