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Developing Teen Leadership

Every year, I ask teenagers to help me define leadership or leadership skills. I ask them about the characteristics of a good leader using leaders they see in their lives everyday, or based on who they see in popular culture. Teenagers are excellent at answering this question. I can always fill a whiteboard or a flip-chart with insightful answers.

Examples of Teen Leadership Skills

It’s amazing how easy it can be to develop a list of excellent leadership qualities, and how difficult it can be to define leadership. That’s why I like to start with the traits. Here are some of the ones that come up frequently in our brainstorms:

  • Confidence: Leaders have a strong sense of who they are and a healthy sense of self-worth. They believe in themselves!

  • A Good Listener: A good leader listens to the thoughts, concerns and ideas of those around them. They acknowledge others’ contributions, and incorporate others’ strengths and ideas into the group’s goals and strategies.

  • Shares a Vision: A leader is able to articulate a goal or a vision with clarity, passion and strength. A leader can inspire a group by guiding them towards a new idea, a new way of operating, or the possibility of achieving a shared goal.

  • Tenacity, Grit and Determination: A leader is able to overcome obstacles and challenges by believing in themselves, working effectively with others, and maintaining a positive attitude as they move forward in their journey.

  • Organization: A leader moves forward towards the realization of a vision. In order to do this, they must follow a path. This path might be marked by clear goals, or a deep sense of intuition, but in order to lead others, a leader must strike a course to follow.

  • Honesty and Integrity: In order to establish and maintain trust, a true leader is honest, and stands by their own values and edicts.

For over two decades I have worked in the field of leadership development with teenagers and young adults, and over that whole time, I’ve noticed that the term “leadership” has strong connotations for most people. Youth worry that if they come to our summer program, they’ll need to make speeches like teen toastmasters, or be put in the spotlight. However, our programs are not meant to produce student class presidents, they’re meant to inspire personal integrity, personal growth, the development of self-worth and the ability to connect authentically with others.

We talk about a theory of change that relies on metaphors like the ripple effect, the butterfly effect, the snowball effect or the domino effect. It’s all about being yourself, being conscientious, doing what you think is right, and inspiring others to do the same.

When I was 14 years old, I attended The YES Camp for the first time, and after a week, I went home with a new understanding of my power as a leader. By just implementing an idea, I could make change in my friendships, my school, my family and my community. I had never understood before that my perspective mattered.

Whether you call it leadership, or character development, self-development or personal growth, the work that we do is meant to equip youth with the experiences, traits and skills that they need to live engaged, aware, connected and fulfilling lives. So how the heck do you do that?

1. Establish a Container

Whether it’s at our camp, in a classroom, at the grocery store or in your home, every place that we go has a unique set of rules and norms that we adopt in order to get along with each other, operate safely, and meet each other’s expectations. By being explicit about building the agreements that govern these spaces, we have the opportunity to build them to serve our needs, desires and goals. While in many places these rules and norms operate invisibly, they are malleable, and with some intention and thought, we can craft them as we wish.

At The YES we call our container The Free Zone, and every week the group of youth who attend our camp craft it to meet their needs and desires. We ask them, what do you want as part of your week at camp, and what do you want to leave behind? We write down everything that they say, and together we commit to a week of fun, outdoor activities, compliments, hugs, dance parties, games, respect, care, support and enthusiasm, and we commit to leave behind bullying, name calling, judgement, disrespect, negativity and gossip.

Whether you’re developing teen leadership skills in a short classroom workshop, in your household, or over the course of a school year, it is crucial to empower your teen(s) to voice what is important to them, to work towards building that reality, and to talking about what’s working well, and what’s getting in the way. By doing this, teens, and anyone participating will start to understand the power we have to build our social reality and work to make it more engaging, fulfilling and fun.

Examples of things you can do to help build a container:

  • Build rituals and traditions that serve the culture you want to create - for example, bring gratitude into your daily rituals by naming three things you’re grateful for before dinner or bed every night.

  • Make sure everyone contributes and has a role to play

  • Make compliments and appreciations a part of your culture

  • Talk about your culture regularly. Maybe it’s a family meeting, or a classroom discussion every Thursday, or a check-in every month. See how things are going, and ask how you can do them better. At The YES we do this every day with the Free Zone.

2. Build Self-Worth

Each and every person needs to believe that they are lovable and capable in order to maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Feeling lovable and capable, relies on the inputs of both care and respect from caregivers fr