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Developing Teen Leadership

Updated: Jan 24

When I ask teenagers to help me define leadership, I ask them about the characteristics of a good leader. Teenagers are excellent at answering this question. I can always fill a whiteboard or a flip-chart with insightful answers.


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 from infancy to early childhood to adolescence and into adulthood. As psychologist Dr. Darien Thira explains, it is this foundation of care and respect that translates into resiliency and the ability to create and live a “well-lived life”.

As a small baby, each of us needs constant care from adults and caregivers. As infants, we require others to take care of all of our basic needs, but as we grow up the need for constant care begins to be balanced with the need for respect and empowerment. At every age, and for every individual this balance looks a little different, but as kids turn into teens, it’s our job as parents, teachers, caregivers and community members to guide youth to become adults by teaching them the skills needed, and providing the freedoms and responsibilities required to be a fully confident and capable member of society.


For anyone working with children or teens it’s helpful to think about this teeter-totter of care and respect. When I’m working with teachers I always pose the question, what does it look like when care and respect are out of balance in a child or a youth? The answers come easily, because every teacher has seen examples from both sides of the teeter totter. Youth who’ve been given too much care and not enough respect don’t believe in their capabilities, their parents fight their battles, they make excuses and need constant coaching and coddling, unable to make their own decisions, motivate themselves and believe in their own abilities. These kids have stereotypical helicopter parents, ready to swoop down and intervene at a moment’s notice.


On the other hand, there are the tragic cases of children who’ve grown up with too little care, and too much respect, or in this case, too much independence. These children may not have all their basic needs met, they have too many responsibilities and burdens on their shoulders, and their lack of self-worth does not come from not feeling capable, but instead from not feeling loved.



For those of us that encounter teens somewhere along this developmental journey, it’s important to do a teeter-totter assessment. Is everything in balance? And if not, what’s needed here? more care or more respect? At The YES we find that if we’re dealing with a behaviour issue, by identifying what the core need of the individual is, we can serve them in the most empathic and loving way to do some of the work to help bring them into greater balance. Sometimes offering too much care does a disservice, as does challenging a youth with too much responsibility.


Some tips and tools for providing care and respect to teens:

​Ways to show Care:

Ways to show Respect:

  • Give affirmations and essence compliments for who they are

  • Reflective Listening

  • Empathize

  • Physical Touch

  • Spend Quality Time

  • Give a meaningful gift

  • Express your love, admiration, gratitude for the person

  • Do something kind for them

  • Provide a shoulder to cry on

  • Be available, be consistent, be trustworthy

  • Give affirmations and essence compliments for what they are capable of

  • Show them trust

  • Give them responsibilities

  • Empower them to make choices, make changes, contribute ideas

  • Find ways for them to meaningfully contribute

  • Work together

  • Provide challenges

  • Teach new skills or learn new skills together

As Dr. Thira explains, when someone’s sense of self-worth is drastically out of balance, that person will become a victim or a bully. Helplessness and aggression stem out of the same lack, but where helplessness is internalized, aggression is externalized. For the aggressor, self-acceptance comes from the comparison of being able to say, “I’m better than you.” But true self-worth is not a comparison, it is grounded in an inner knowing of being lovable and capable.


3. Get Active, Get Engaged, Get Curious

There are thousands of camp activities, games and team challenges that you can use with any group of teens. Whether it’s a hike up a mountain, an improv game, or a challenge cooked up with some tape, string and the contents of your recycling bin, it’s important to get hands-on and have some fun. But whatever activity you do, there’s a plethora of learning to be done at the same time. So get curious and observe what’s happening!


At The YES we have a long list of activities and sessions, some of which we’ve been using since back in the 70’s. We focus on the themes of self-awareness, co-operation, communication, leadership, inclusion and global awareness, and each of these sessions include long lists of games, activities, group challenges and skits that we can use to build understanding and education around each theme. Every year these sessions are refreshed and they evolve with our current group of staff and volunteers, to connect most authentically with our current group of teens. Some years there’s fairy tales and cartoons, and other years it’s the Hunger Games, Shrek and undersea creatures.



The important thing is not whether the session is themed around aliens or farm animals, or whether it’s done in small rotating groups or one large one (although these considerations are all helpful to make it the most fun and engaging possible), but rather the learning relies on what questions are asked, and what reflections are shared after the activity is over. For many youth the learning will only come when they gain a new perspective on something they just experienced, or they see a new way to be successful or approach a problem. So, no matter what activity you’re engaging in, make sure to identify what the learning outcomes are, and design a clear set of open questions that will help the youth teach you what they’ve learnt.



Examples of Debrief Questions:

  • What qualities or skills did you need to be successful in that activity?

  • What was the most challenging aspect of the activity?

  • What could you have done differently to be more successful or to have a different outcome?

  • What roles did the members of your group take on?

  • Was there an opportunity for people to change roles during the activity?

  • How did the group communicate during the activity? What was helpful and what held you back?

  • If you were going to do the same activity again, what would you do differently?

  • Was there anything about this activity that reminded you of something in real life, at home or at school? What insights did you have?


4. Role Models, Vulnerability, and Storytelling

At The YES we have an amazing and diverse set of staff and volunteers who run our summer programs. Over 90% of this group are alumni from our camps who return to The YES each year to provide youth with the same transformational experience they had when they were teens. For the youth who attend our programs, it is this group of incredible role models who makes their experience meaningful and magical.


Here are some of the ways that we approach role modelling at The YES:

  • We hire leaders who believe in the power of connection, community building, vulnerability and self-development. Most of our new hires are new graduates of The YES Camps, and come into the role of staff members and facilitators with passion and enthusiasm for creating strong communities of care and respect for teens. They come dedicated to making each teen’s experience one where they feel completely supported to be themselves, challenged to grow, and encouraged to build strong and lasting friendships with other participants.

  • We provide extensive training for our staff and volunteers in facilitation, crisis counseling, leadership, team building and we put endless time, energy and thought into planning each activity and each camp with every participant’s needs and best interest at heart. We operate in service of every teen who attends The YES.

  • As a team we work on being as high functioning as possible. We establish a high degree of trust and interdependence in one another, we communicate through our conflicts and disagreements, and seek out feedback to learn and grow and be better.

  • We encourage our staff to show vulnerability and share their thoughts, feelings and stories with the teens who attend camp. Whether it’s through our end-of-the-day reflections circles, or our inspirational Thought of the Day each morning of camp, role models are encouraged to share their triumphs and their struggles so that teens can learn from young leaders who are available, accessible, and authentic.

  • One of our board members and former staff members, Sara Hyde, once referred to our team as a “crack team of superheroes” – while we might not each have all of the skills we need to work with teens from across the province, as a diverse team of young leaders every youth can find someone on our team to identify and connect with. As a team, we can take on any challenge, and we’ll have the strengths and skills to tackle any obstacle.

At The YES we believe in connection and openness. We know that teens can see inauthenticity from a mile away, and that vulnerability connects people. Developing teen leadership means role modelling both vulnerability and empathy. It means building relationships and connections that have substance and strength. It means building a container that can withstand the complexity and mess that come with all meaningful endeavours.


5. Work Towards a Common Vision

As I mentioned before, Dr Darien Thira works on a concept of the well-lived life. His work relies on the wisdom of the Lakota Medicine Wheel. The wheel teaches us that as human beings we need to be able to contribute to something greater than ourselves. Whether it’s through our families, our jobs, our volunteer work or other roles we take on, we need to connect and contribute to something meaningful; something that we believe in; something we are proud of. This is the basis for individual and community resiliency.


At The YES we all work towards a vision of society where we put people and relationships first. Where we work together cooperatively and harmoniously, and take care of every member of our community. We work to build communities where everyone is supported to be themselves, where incredible friendships are built, where people are challenged to learn and grow, and where we can show up authentically for a good cry, a good laugh, an amazing dance party or to get some work done.


Whether you are building teen leadership in a home or a school, in an organization or a team, what’s your vision? What roles can people play in executing that vision? How can your youth leaders get involved and work towards making change happen?


After I ask teens to brainstorm a list of leadership qualities, I ask them to name some things that they would like to change in the world. And then I ask them, “How does change happen?” And I share with them the well shared Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” At The YES, we build the skills and character traits necessary to work together in a small, thoughtful group of committed citizens.


References:

Thira, Darien (2017). The Community is the Medicine. (www.thira.ca)


 

About the Author:

Chelsea Lake (she/her) is the Executive Director of The Youth Excellence Society and holds a Masters of Education in Leadership Studies from the University of Victoria.

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