The Youth of Today is a consortium of leading youth organizations working together to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of opportunities for young people as leaders of change in their communities.
Young people in Nigeria today are growing up with ideals, expectations, ambitions and talents which are unprecedented, driven by the new technology, affluence and globalization. As a nation, we should have an abundance of strong organizations that will engage in youth leadership. In recent years, there have been extraordinarily creative experiments, many of our youths today.
However, young people face new kinds of social challenges in a more complex world a world that is more diverse, with increased pressures on families, greater caring responsibilities including for the young, more intense pressure from markets, and employability and skills challenges. It is also a time when millions of young people are aware as never before of the scale of the leadership challenges we now face at a global scale from climate change to ageing to inequality. Many of these challenges and pressures are predicted to increase in scale and intensity as a consequence of the economic downturn. For our nation to succeed, we need to invest in young people’s skills and capabilities to act as powerful advocates and agents of change to help society meet these challenges.
Yet, in many communities, talent continues to go to waste: thousands of young people face acute difficulties in making the transition to adulthood, and public perceptions of young people can often be negative, reinforced by unfavourable media portrayals, with young people often being perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution and, at worst, viewed with fear and suspicion. These negative perceptions mask the extraordinarily positive work in which young people are engaged whether in the private or public sphere through volunteering, caring, carrying out youth work and a host of other positive activities.
The youths are being denied in the political affairs in Nigeria
Young people are still denied adequate representation in the places where power is exercised, from Parliament and local councils to businesses and voluntary organizations. Only 0.3% of councillors are under 251. Young people from minority ethnic backgrounds face further barriers which also require closer attention especially in the light of growing challenges around radicalization and far right extremism.
Understanding what kinds of activities and programmes can inspire the youth, motivate and mobilise a new generation of young people to engage in the democratic process and contribute to their community is vital to sustaining a healthy democracy.
Parties for the Public Good finds that one of the most crucial roles of political parties in the past was to develop successive generations of leaders, providing them with the skills and confidence to campaign and govern; many young people learned more through party activism than through formal education. This role has atrophied in recent years, in part because of increasing professionalization in the world of work and political life. Educational qualifications tend now to be the most important determinant of attainment later in life, while the role of judgment and life experience are nowadays given less weight relative to paper qualifications and professionalism. Party politics, aligned as it is to this set of values, has ceased to engage a broad range of young people in its activities, and party leadership has become increasingly less representative particularly of low-income groups without affluent or politically engaged family and community networks, educational opportunities and political power. The routes that once helped to find and nurture leaders from different backgrounds such as the trade unions and churches alongside mass political parties are no longer working. Building the skills and capacities of young people to take up leadership roles in their communities is vital for democracy.
There is also strong evidence supporting the notion of a ‘democratic deficit’ among young people: notably, young people display low levels of trust in politicians and political institutions and evidence little inclination to join formal political organisations or to get involved in local politics. While young people remain attached to voting as a civic right and responsibility, voting levels among young people are low and are projected to remain so. There is also little evidence that young people are choosing more informal or non-traditional forms of civic and civil participation in large numbers (e.g. participation in activities such as protests, and interest in community issues).
Beyond the political arena, further pressing challenges are affecting young people. Labour market statistics show that unemployment for 18- to 24-year-olds was 676,000 in the three months to March 2009, up 60,000 from the three months to December 2008. Youth unemployment is rising more quickly than unemployment for any other group and is forecast to exceed 1 million during 2008. Those under 25 thus appear to be bearing significant pressures as a consequence of the recession.
The social and psychological consequences of youth unemployment are well documented. For example, during the recession of the 1980s, male suicide rates increased dramatically. As David Blanch flower, the influential economist and member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee who predicted the recession, has said: “Sustained unemployment while young, especially of long duration, is especially damaging.
By preventing labour market entrants from gaining a foothold in employment, sustained youth unemployment may reduce their productivity. Those that suffer youth unemployment tend to have lower incomes and poorer labour market experiences in later decades. Unemployment while young creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes.”
Not only this, but poor employment outcomes are related to increased criminal activity, reduced health outcomes and lower educational outcomes among offspring.
Unemployment and underemployment are quickly becoming more than a temporary problem, with many young people leaving school, college and university without jobs, or being fired from jobs in the first round of cuts. Many others simply do not have the skills and qualifications that employers want.
Economic woes quickly turn into social challenges. The number of children in custody has increased by 8% between 2005 and 2008. As of April 2008, more than 3,000 children were in jail, with further increases expected. According to Children and Young People in Custody 2006-2008, one in three young people in prison has a history of care, and 86% of young men have been excluded from schools. This source also cites a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic young people in custody, with 29% of young men and 23% of young women coming from these backgrounds. Additionally, a quarter of young offenders under 17 have literacy and numeracy levels equal to an average seven-year- old child. This number is higher and increasing among young offenders. These statistics and research from the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggest that jobs and education are a critical part of reducing reoffending and preventing anti-social behaviour.
Schools and workplaces are not the only places where young people are facing challenges; young people also have more responsibility in the home and face negative attitudes in society. According to the 2001 census, there are over 175,000 young careers in the UK, with around 13,000 of them caring for more than 50 hours a week. Furthermore, UNICEF’s 2008 reports on the state of the UK’s children noted a “general climate of intolerance and negative public attitudes towards children” in the media and other outlets. Research from the University of Sheffield looking at the sense of belonging to where one life shows significant drops in all parts of the world between 1971 and 2001.
This report explores the meaning of youth leadership and how to providing young people with opportunities to develop and exercise leadership can have a positive impact on young people and their communities, and how youth leadership can serve as a vehicle for tackling pressing social challenges.
Youth Leadership: What it is and why it matters
The concept of ‘youth leadership’ is difficult to pin down. Leadership literature includes a host of theories investigating leaders, their roles and essential qualities, and whether they are ‘made’ or ‘born’ and if they are ‘made’, then how to ‘make’ them. Examining youth leadership, specifically, adds another layer of complexity, tied as it is in popular conception to other ideas such as youth development, citizenship, youth action and engagement, and participation. This section provides a framework for understanding youth leadership, while also drawing attention to shifts in meaning and debates around leadership in general, and youth leadership specifically.
The section will also look at the benefits of providing young people with opportunities to develop and exercise their leadership capabilities. We will argue that the skills which enable effective leadership have broader significance beyond their potential to prepare young people to take on formal leadership roles. We show that youth leadership has benefits for the individual young person, their peer group and society more generally. Youth leadership development can thus serve multiple purposes: “It is simultaneously an end in itself, by promoting healthy youth development, and a means to an end, as youth make contributions through their participation.”
Drawing from the above analysis, we then present a definition of youth leadership, and define what constitutes effective practice in the field of youth leadership. While recognizing that one specific definition may not be ideal in the context of practice, building a conceptual framework of what leadership means and can offer young people is important if we are to be able to assess and inform practice in this area.
Conceptualizing the youth leadership
There is considerable debate about the nature and meaning of leadership, and about what skills and attributes are needed in today’s, and future, leaders. In particular, there is a growing shift away from top-down, hierarchical styles of leadership, towards participatory and inclusive leadership styles, which emphasise social and emotional competencies, including self-awareness, collaboration, empathy and relationship building and the ability to lead through authenticity rather than by authority.
Additionally, there is recognition that leaders need a repertoire of different leadership styles for different circumstances. Interest in leadership increased during the early part of the 20th century. Early leadership theories such as ‘Great Man’ and ‘Trait’ theories tended to assume that the capacity for leadership is inherent i.e. that great leaders are born, rather than made. Later theories such as ‘Contingency’, ‘Situational’ and ‘Behavioural’ theories tend to view leadership in less deterministic terms. Broadly, these theories reject the notion that there is a single, optimal profile of a leader, seeing effective leadership as contingent on the situation an overview of eight major theories of leadership.
Evidence shows that the nature of leadership including the skills and qualities required for effective leadership is changing in response to changes in the social world. Research has shown that practising managers believe that the definition of leadership changed dramatically in the last five years and will change even further in the coming five years with social and emotional skills, collaboration and change management becoming more and more crucial. Numerous commentators have attributed this changing definition to the rise of complex challenges, for which no pre-existing solutions or expertise exists. Leaders’ skills are being challenged by globalisation, technology and the relentless pace of change. As one author notes: on the youth leadership matter.
“Today’s leaders are being called upon by necessity to develop responses to complex challenges, brought on by unexpected events and situations. Leaders of the future will have to embrace complexity and the skills needed to harness it.”
Increasingly, this complexity will require more collaborative and inter-dependent work. Therefore, the social and emotional skills that foster and build interpersonal relationships are crucial in the youth leadership skills.
There is a lack of definitional clarity surrounding social and emotional skills also described as ‘competencies’ and the terrain is “full of competing and sometimes confusing labels” for example, ‘soft’ skills, or ‘non-cognitive’ skills. To lend coherence and simplicity, the Young Foundation has suggested the division of these social-emotional competencies into four clusters, making up the acronym SEED:
The SEED is the real ideal for youth leadership skills building.
‘S’ is for social and emotional competencies that include self-awareness, social awareness and social skills.
‘E’ is for emotional resilience the ability to cope with shocks or rebuffs that may be short or long-term.
‘E’ is for enterprise, innovation and creativity the ability to shape situations, imagine alternatives, remain open to new ideas, problem-solve and work in teams
‘D’ is for discipline both inner discipline to defer gratification and pursue goals, as well as the ability to cope with external discipline.
Despite a lack of definitional clarity surrounding social-emotional skills or competencies, there is a consensus around their importance, in the leadership context and more widely. These skills can bring added benefits to the individual whether in the workplace or through activities in the community.
Research reveals three key strands relating social and emotional skills to youth leadership development:
Leadership is an inherently collaborative, social and relational activity:
Leadership is increasingly understood as a collective capacity, rather than an individual trait:
“Leadership is defined not as what the leader does but rather a process that engenders and is the result of relationships that focus on the interactions of both leaders and collaborators instead of focusing on only the competencies of leaders.”
Older models of leadership that privilege a ‘Lone Ranger’ individual acting alone in decision-making are giving way to ideals of leadership that involve motivation of others and a team-based approach. This shift in thought is also evident in current work on youth leadership, where there has been a clear paradigm shift from the idea of a leader as a director to an enabler of effective action. This new conception of leadership, shared by most organizations currently working to develop young leaders, is about the relationships of leaders and their collaborators.
Leadership is situational: An emerging focus in leadership development literature is the successful leader’s ability to ‘read’ situations accurately. This requires self-awareness and self-discipline, both needed for leaders to engage effectively with others in a variety of contexts and environments.
Emotional intelligence and emotional resonance with others are key capabilities of successful leaders: There is increasing recognition that leaders must be self-aware and aware of the reactions and needs of others. New focus has been placed on the nature and strength of leaders’ emotional impact on others. Research has shown, for example, that a leader’s emotional resonance with others is a better predictor of effective executive leadership than is general intelligence.
This focus on leaders’ emotional connectedness to others is also apparent in the growing focus, in the last couple of decades, on leaders’ genuineness, authenticity, credibility and trustworthiness. These characteristics are related more to the affective quality of leaders’ relationships with others than to specific leader behaviours and competencies. This has been brought to the fore by increasing public scrutiny of the character and integrity of leaders. A strong case has been made that “character as defined by qualities like striving for fairness, respecting others, humility and concern for the greater social good represents the most critical quality of leadership”. Recent literature on leadership for example, psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi Good Business Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning, and Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future stresses this ethical dimension of leadership.
Interest in charismatic and transformational leaders has been fuelled by the nature and strength of their emotional impact on others. In the past, leadership was conceived of in terms of transactional terms. Transactional leadership is characterised by “mutually beneficial exchanges between two parties to optimize mutual benefit”. While this model produces somewhat predictable outcomes, these are generally short-lived. The last two decades have seen an increasing interest in a new type of leadership:
Transformation in youth leadership
Transformational leadership operates through tapping into followers’ deeper values and sense of higher purpose, and has been found to lead to higher levels of follower commitment and effort, as well as more enduring change. Transformational leaders “provide compelling visions of a better future and inspire trust through seemingly unshakeable self-confidence and conviction”.
This type of leadership is emphasised in Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end, authored by Rosabeth Moss Kanter internationally renowned business leader and expert on strategy, innovation and youth leadership for change.
Effective leadership is, therefore, more than about simply enacting the ‘right’ behaviours it needs to include a deep awareness of the impact of one’s behaviour on others. In turn, leadership development now needs to involve the development of the whole person, stressing self-awareness and balance in life. This emphasis on holistic personal development and self-awareness is evident in current youth leadership practice: for example, in the philosophy espoused by Public Allies, a US youth leadership programme, which emphasises that the first step in being a leader is knowing who you are as a person including an awareness of individual mission, values and character and how those are negotiated with others.
Why youth leadership matters?
Youth leadership has benefits for the individual young person, their peer group and society more broadly. By investing in young people’s personal development, wider economic opportunities could be created, especially for those in disadvantaged communities. Youth leadership development therefore serves multiple purposes: “It is simultaneously an end in itself, by promoting healthy youth development, and a means to an end, as youth make contributions through their participation.”
The developmental context for youth leadership: Supporting successful transitions to adulthood
The social and emotional skills which enable effective leadership have broader significance beyond their potential to prepare young people to take on formal leadership roles developing these skills is fundamental to young people’s successful transition to adulthood:
There is a large body of evidence that highlights good social and emotional skills as factors in improved emotional resilience. Research by Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman and others demonstrates with significant statistical results that social and emotional competencies are at least as important as technical skills in determining employability, earnings and career success.
Research by Blanden, Gregg and Macmillan finds that social and emotional competencies which they refer to as ‘non-cognitive skills’ play an important role in social mobility, which in turn has a bearing on inequality of opportunity.
There are three key environments in which young people learn and develop these skills: in the family, in the context of their schooling, and through what they do in their leisure time. There is some evidence that poor social and emotional skills are more likely in children from lower socio-economic backgrounds than their better off peers, and this group is thus at risk of poorer outcomes. This may be largely due to the fact that it is disproportionately young people from poorer backgrounds and communities who lack the circumstances through which to develop these skills. More generally, those young people who do not have supportive family environments, who are struggling at school, and who do not participate regularly in constructive activities in their leisure time are also at risk: “Growing up with a combination of these circumstances can, for a minority of young people, lead to disaffection and at the most extreme, marginalization from society.”
For this reason, nurturing the development of social and emotional skills in young people, particularly those who lack the contexts in which to develop these, is a crucial task. This is by no means impossible or inherently difficult. Paul Schmitz CEO, Public Allies, noted that the important step in addressing the deficit in social and emotional skills among this group was simply recognising those young people who need extra support, providing it and monitoring their improvement throughout the programme. This simple approach has been highly successful, resulting in an 85-90% graduation rate for participants in the Public Allies programme.
The skills and outcomes implicated in youth leadership development need to be seen in the context of young people’s developmental needs more generally. The areas of development targeted by youth leadership programmes such as belonging and membership, competence and power, and meaningful relationships with others are critical components of healthy development in adolescence. Young people who have few productive opportunities or positive outlets for establishing a sense of belonging, competence, power, and meaning can “give up and avoid risk because it is easier not to try than to try and fail” or can seek out potentially damaging alternative routes for example, seeking to belong through attention seeking, promiscuous or clinging behaviours, or trying to win respect through aggressive techniques.
The social and emotional skills that young people develop when they learn and exercise leadership can be key in enabling them to develop this vital self-confidence and motivation towards the future.
Youth leadership also has wider benefits beyond the individual young person. Research studies illustrate that youth leadership also brings benefits to the peer group by inspiring other young people through setting a positive example, the local community, local community organizations and wider society.
For example, Mohammad Imran CEO, Muslim Youth Helpline sees young people as critical to innovation and social change because their understanding and perspectives are often more flexible than those of older people. Similarly, Lars Lægreid Director, Prosjekt design, maintains that what makes youth leadership potentially powerful is that young people:
“Look at possibilities in a more refreshed, new and inspiring way than older people. It’s a huge advantage; it feels like it’s the first time the idea has ever been suggested You really believe in your ideas, which means often you make your ideas fly where older leaders may not, because they often can’t get through the mental barrier to trying them. The naïve and the creative elements are the defining aspects of youth leadership.”
Research studies illustrate that young people have a powerful and vital role to play in addressing today’s pressing challenges. These range from issues around social cohesion, such as intergenerational conflicts and exclusion to climate change e.g. Otesha a programme operating in the UK, Canada and Australia, which inspires and empowers young people to champion environmental sustainability, to street violence e.g. Fight for Peace a programme running in Brazil and the UK, which provides young people in marginalised communities with practical alternatives to crime and organised armed violence.
A recent study by The National Youth Agency emphasises that “young people must be integral to the process of building cohesion within communities”. The study points out that young people can be mistrustful of authority and resent solutions that are perceived to be ‘parachuted on them’ and for which they feel no ownership. The study emphasises that young volunteers can be a powerful tool for engaging others, particularly where young people become peer mentors, leaders and mediators. This is what Envision a youth empowerment charity showcased in this report calls the ‘ripple effect’. The Envision programme seeks to provide young people with a powerful and rewarding experience of making a positive difference. Inspired by their experiences, the young people are then both willing and able to continue acting as effective role models for their communities.
Issues and debates on youth leadership
Providing young people with opportunities to develop and exercise leadership can potentially have benefits on multiple levels; however, there are some ongoing and emerging issues, debates and caveats on youth leadership that warrant acknowledgement. These include:
‘Authority confers leadership’ versus ‘Leadership comes from within’: Many accepted theories of leadership, including the trait approach, the situational approach, contingency theory and the transactional approach all conflate ‘authority’ with ‘leadership’. They believe that leaders need followers and that positional authority is required for leadership to be exercised. However, newer theories, like those of Ronald Heifetz, separate leadership from authority and self from role, using as an example people like Mohandas Gandhi and Rosa Parks, both of whom exhibited generation changing leadership without any initial formal authority. As young people rarely have formal authority in society, these conceptions of leadership as centred in the individual rather than the role are vital in youth leadership development opportunities.
It is also important to distinguish between the development of young people’s capacity to be self- motivated and manage themselves, on the one hand, and the development of the capacity to inspire and motivate others, on the other. Young people are capable of exercising leadership even without a ‘followership’, and where young people are leading change in the context of a group, this is often a process of creating a sense of identification, shared membership and belonging. It is important to note that “showing responsibility for oneself and demonstrating the ability to make personal change is often as critical as leading a group of individuals or altering the larger community”.
‘Leading young people’ versus ‘leading all people’: It is often presumed that youth leadership is different to adult leadership. In a Change makers survey of more than 100 young people, over half of the respondents were of the opinion that ‘youth leadership’ is different to ‘adult leadership’: 59% of young people who responded mentioned organising a group of the same age, 57% a group of a younger age but only 40% a group of older people. Research shows that in many instances, there is an implicit assumption that youth leadership entails young people leading groups of other young people rather than being fully valued leaders in relation to adults and their wider communities. research reveals a general need for a shift away from thinking about the concept of youth leadership as ‘good for youth’ towards thinking about youth integration into leadership roles as ‘good for all’. We should also highlight the need for a shift away from a ‘deficit model’ of youth leadership.
Avoiding the language of leadership: During our consultations with practitioners we found it striking that many programmes eschew the language of leadership in particular, avoiding this language when advocating their programmes to young people. The process of building and promoting young leaders can sound like something being done to young people, rather than with them. Additionally, it risks overlooking the ways in which young people are already exhibiting leadership qualities, focusing instead on a conception of leadership that is adult-centred and forward looking. In response to these issues, the practitioners we spoke with preferred engaging with young people on the issues relevant to their lives and about which they are passionate. Some of the reservations concerning the language of leadership include:
‘Leaders are born’ versus ‘leaders are made’: The ‘inherent leadership’ versus ‘developed leadership’ argument is one of the longest running in the discipline; some argue that leadership skills can be developed and promoted in any young person, given the right support though not everyone will become a leader, nor will everyone want to be. Others aim to hone skills in talented young people who are already predisposed to be leaders, arguing that the focus on making leaders of all young people has led to the watering-down of youth leadership programmes and an inability to define what leadership is and how leaders should be developed. It is important to point out the veracity of both arguments: all young people can develop leadership skills, but there are indeed some young people who have exceptional personal gifts for leadership. These two concepts need not be mutually exclusive; indeed, good youth leadership programmes should provide the opportunity for all young people to learn and grow, while also encouraging and nurturing those with the talents and desire to do more.
Towards a common definition of youth leadership
Despite the ongoing debates around what youth leadership is, and what youth leadership development should involve, there are more similarities than differences in the literature and in practice, and it is possible to come to a broad agreement about the nature and meaning of youth leadership. While providing a specific definition may not be necessary or ideal in the context of practice (as above), it is important to build a conceptual framework of what youth leadership means and what it can offer young people if we are to investigate and showcase best practice in this area.
After reviewing and compiling a number of definitions both from desk-based research and through our interviews in the field, we compiled the following definitions, relating to theory and practice.
Youth leadership: Young people empowered to inspire and mobilise themselves and others towards a common purpose, in response to personal and/or social issues and challenges, to effect positive change.
Developing youth leadership: Opportunities that engage young people in challenging action, around issues that reflect their genuine needs and offer authentic opportunities to make decisions and effect change, in an environment of support in which young people can reflect on their experiences.
How do we promote and develop youth leadership?
Developing young leaders has positive impacts for young people themselves and for their communities. How, then, should organizational leaders, educators, government and communities focus their efforts?
There is no single model for effective practice: has observed, “Effective youth programmes are not a one-size-fits-all commodity.” The same can be said of youth leadership programmes. Research indicates that there are effective programmes and valuable opportunities across sectors and across a multitude of contexts. They employ different approaches and methods, and focus on different areas of development and change ranging from entrepreneurship to personal development, to community development e.g. Envision, to sustainable development.
They emerge in response to a variety of needs. They also provide multiple pathways to leadership, provide opportunities to lead in multiple areas of society, and stress divergent, but often equally valuable progression routes and endpoints.
Nonetheless, there are some characteristics that are common to effective leadership programmes. Some of these characteristics are embodied by effective youth development programmes in general, while others relate specifically to youth leadership opportunities. There will be a map out the principles and practices of effective youth leadership development, and will look at how we can create and sustain organisations that support and nurture youth leadership. The report will also highlight key challenges, as well as the ways in which existing programmes are engaging with these challenges in creative and innovative ways.
Key note in youth leadership development
Developing and nurturing young leaders: Facilitating young people’s leadership journeys.
This section focuses on how to develop and nurture young leaders, exploring three key stages of the youth leadership journey:
Getting young people involved: This investigates issues relating to access and engagement
Developing leadership: This highlights the key ingredients for supporting and nurturing young people’s capacity to lead,
Sustaining the journey: This explores how to ensure that young people’s leadership journeys progress effectively and are sustained over time.
Additionally, we highlight challenges relating to each of these three aspects of young people’s leadership journeys.
Getting young people involved youth leadership
To get young people involved in leadership programmes means making opportunities accessible and appealing to them. Consequently, programmes need to be designed to recognise, reflect and respond to the specific needs and contexts of young people’s lives. It also requires acknowledging the practical constraints such as family circumstances or lifestyles that may act as barriers to participation, as well as recognition that young people are by no means a homogenous group. Because of this, different engagement techniques will be required depending on the contextual specificities of young people’s lives. For example, Luke Dowdney (Founder, Fight for Peace) explains that encouraging young leaders to get involved in politics poses different challenges in Brazil in comparison to the UK. In Brazil, issues have to do with corruption and the behaviour of the police, which contributes to disengagement among young people. In the UK, the issues are different, relating more to the fact that young people don’t feel that politics is something that affects their lives or makes a difference, resulting in little desire to get involved.
Additionally, an important principle to bear in mind is that participation should be measured against the gains for the young person involved. Many people believe that getting young people involved in any programme or opportunity will be beneficial; however, many case study organisations highlighted their desire to only include young people when they are sure the experience will be a positive one for them. for example, openly acknowledges that their cycle tours are not for everyone, and indirectly engages more ‘marginalised’ young people through their theatrical programmes and school activities. Their view is that offering experiences without proper support or infrastructure can not only be a waste of time, but can also discourage young people from participating in similar programmes in the future.
Youth programmes are designed differently to meet different needs and respond to the specific and often differing concerns of the young people involved. Participation, therefore, must be well defined and well thought-through, with the benefits for the organisation and young people clearly articulated, maximising benefits for both.
Gaps and challenges in youth leadership skills and development
There are a number of gaps and challenges to getting young people involved in leadership programmes:
Practical constraints to access: Practical constraints can include a lack of accessible facilities; lack of information about opportunities; a lack of access to transportation or childcare; the cost of programmes or materials; and the time commitments programmes require.
Elitism of access: Often, the young people selected as participants reflect the adults working to ‘empower’ them and are culled from the more educated and included groups of society, rather than being included for talent or ability. This ‘elitism of access’ has the potential to put off young people who do not feel the current programmes are relevant to their lives.
“Whilst young people’s involvement in participation allowed them to access a new world of politics, government and institutions, young people often complained that this world was dominated by a small elite of regular youth participants, upon whom adults placed an unhelpful reliance, and whose attraction was rooted in their confidence, skills and willingness to relate closely to adult and organisational sensibilities.”
Young people may at times feel that leadership is not open to people of their faith, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic backgrounds. The key is to make it accessible to them, and convince them effectively that they too can be leaders in their field. The Muslim Youth Helpline addresses this concern by helping young Muslims define and develop who they are in a safe space where religion is a defining characteristic of all those involved. Building leadership skills and addressing issues in the context of religious identity gives participants the confidence and self-knowledge to become involved in campaigns, and engage with organisations that do not have an explicit Muslim focus. For young people marginalised because of their identity, programmes that help address those issues can be important stepping stones to wider engagement.
Low aspirations and expectations: Low aspirations and expectations are a key barrier to engaging certain groups of young people. Many young people may feel that programmes are not ‘for them’ or feel they lack the talent or ability to be leaders. For this reason, Public Allies (see Appendix A, p54) argues that it is important to recruit young people using staff and past participants who look like their young recruits, not only in terms of their race, but also in their dress, mannerisms and personal style. As CEO Paul Schmitz noted “encouraging participation is about helping people to see themselves.” Providing examples of success for young people who have come from similar backgrounds and identities helps young people recognize their potential to succeed.
Negative associations with leadership roles and negative peer pressure: As noted, research has reveals that key barriers to youth engagement include the fact that young people may not identify with the leadership role, or may view leadership in a negative light. In some cases, young people may experience peer pressure that deters them from engaging. Peer pressure is often mentioned as a barrier to political engagement and participation by young people. According to the Youth Citizenship Commission, many young people feel they will be seen as ‘weird’ if they participate when their peers do not, and feel afraid to express their views and opinions in front of a group. Similarly, the National Centre for Social Research finds that peer pressure and the desire to ‘fit in’ with the crowd, and avoid standing out, prevent some young people from participating.
Young women and those who lack confidence seem particularly affected by peer pressure. Also, young people can be put off by the images they have of those young people who do participate and survey findings show that teenagers who are engaged in politics are believed to be upper or middle-class people, particularly ‘swots’ or ‘nerds’. The Fight for Peace (FFP) programme, for example, showcased in Appendix A, works with a group of young people for whom ‘leadership’ is particularly uninspiring those involved in street violence and drug-running, or who have been in contact with the criminal justice system. Founder Luke Dowdney created FFP to reach these young people, utilizing boxing and martial arts as a way to instill discipline and respect. The approach was to teach them skills they already view as ‘cool’ in addition to others that can help them out of a life of violence. Leadership programmes must ‘know their audience’ to develop interventions and programmes in which young people will want to be involved.
Developing youth leadership
Research revealed five key components that form the basis of effective youth leadership opportunities:
Authentic opportunities that will entangle youth leadership skills
Challenge facing the youth leadership
Supporting the youth leadership process
These components give us a useful framework for considering youth leadership opportunities: Young people must be offered challenges that reflect their needs in an environment of support in which they can reflect on their experiences and are given authentic opportunities to make decisions and effect change.
In what follows, we investigate each of these elements in detail.
Authentic opportunities that will entangle youth leadership skills
It has been argued that “the goal of leadership development ultimately involves action, not knowledge”. Young people learn leadership by doing leadership. Because of this, leadership development initiatives need to be about much more than training they need to also include the opportunity for ‘real world’ application of skills.
A survey of 25 leading practitioners of youth leadership programmes in the US found that the key characteristics of successful youth leadership programmes include emphasizing experiential learning and providing opportunities for genuine leadership. By conducted a study of the impact of a teen leadership programme in Texas which engaged youth in weekly sessions on different concepts related to leadership followed by experiential learning activities.
Through the course of the programme, young people applied their newly acquired learning by completing service projects. The study found that the combination of experiential learning and service learning significantly increased young participants’ understanding of leadership. Carole Mac Neil, statewide director of the University of California’s 4-H Youth Development Program, and national director of the 4-H Youth in Governance Initiative, points to evidence from recent research showing that organizations involved in promoting civic activism and political engagement, which builds skills, confidence and knowledge, have higher success rates in encouraging positive youth development than those focused primarily on youth development.
Many effective leadership initiatives adopt an approach that combines taught learning with real opportunities to put learning into practice for example, by leading small groups or planning events, internships, apprenticeships, work placements, or establishing community campaigns and projects.
A key challenge for many youth leadership programmes is to break away from a deficit model which assumes that young people are lacking in leadership qualities, and have to be taught and moulded in order to become leaders for the future and to start seeing young people as leaders of today. MacNeil points out that the adult leadership development literature tends to emphasize a dual focus on ability, learning and authority doing. By contrast, the youth leadership development literature often directs focus on learning about leadership, but not necessarily on applying learning to authentic and meaningful activities. The author emphasises that, without a concurrent examination of authority issues, “young people are simply learning about leadership rather than learning leadership, that they are developing an understanding of leadership without opportunities to practice it”.
Adult leaders often teach young people how to be a certain type of person, rather than equipping them with the tools and presenting them with the guided experiences through which to discover their potential and engage with the community. Indeed, it is by containing youth in the role of consumer rather than actor that youth leadership often fails to inspire true advocates.
Meeting needs that will entangle youth leadership skills
A 10-year study by the Carnegie Foundation of 120 youth-based organizations in the US found that there was a striking divergence between the current needs of young people and youth leadership education. According to this report, many programmes “often depend, at best, on implicit unexamined ideas about how young people develop leadership traits and what being a leader entails. At worst, youth leadership programmes are described as a negative space into which practitioners project their own beliefs about what youth need.”73 Additionally, despite the relative wealth of literature about youth leadership, academics have noted a general lack of applied psychology on how to promote positive youth development.
Youth leadership programmes that reflect their participants’ concerns, fears and hopes about the future are those best placed to help young people develop a positive psychology, which Katy Granville- Chapman Head of Leadership and Teambuilding Programme, Wellington College believes has strong links with leadership. If young people have a good level of wellbeing and are psychologically healthy, according to Granville-Chapman, they are more able to lead and, similarly, more sensitive to and able to enhance the wellbeing of those they seek to inspire and motivate. But promoting that wellbeing means helping young people address the circumstances of their lives, building a feeling of self-efficacy that enables them to change these circumstances. According to a five-year study of youth leadership programmes in the US, the ones that supported raising awareness and exploring one’s identity helped young people to develop positive feelings about themselves, cutting down on self-destructive behaviours. Addressing needs in youth programmes is about promoting resilience through the ‘right’ mix of challenge and support.
Social psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that learning is about interactions and relationships and that learning is most effective when there are people who can determine the correct amount of challenge and support for each individual. Only by getting this combination right can the learner reach the ‘zone of proximal development’, where the most gains are realized.
Providing young people with challenges and the correct amount of support and guidance to meet those challenges can help them grow and develop.
The key for adults is to know what support is enough, and what is too much. Giving young people too much responsibility can lead to gains in status positions, with no real power. Equally, autonomy can quickly become abandonment; young people need a safe, secure and reliable support network through which to set and meet their own goals. Challenge, in the context of development, is about actively engaging young people at an experiential level from which they can grow.
For example, presents young people with the challenge of developing, designing and delivering their own projects to make a difference in their local communities. During a focus group, Envision staff emphasised that the process takes time, and requires patience and support on the part of adult volunteers. They also emphasised that the ‘goals’ young people set for themselves are not always achieved during the course of their projects. The important part of the process, however, is not always reaching the goal, but helping the young person recognize what barriers kept them from their outcomes, and how to avoid these obstacles in the future.
Effective programmes recognize and respond to the age and developmental needs of their participants; they sequence activities so that young people experience a series of successes and increase their responsibilities. There is a strong argument against a model of leadership based solely on age specific cohorts who might be at very different developmental stages as leaders. Rather, the proposed alternative is to focus on previous leadership experience.
Finding a balance between actively engaging young people at their experiential level and overwhelming them with too much responsibility is no easy task, however: “This difficult balance can result in either youth with artificial status and no real power or youth burdened by responsibility that has no context within their former experience.”
Supporting youth leadership programmes
Effective programmes connect young people to caring adults. A number of the programmes showcased in Envision, Groundwork, Public Allies offer both one-on-one adult mentor services to young people, as well as support within small groups, helping young people develop individually and within peer groups. Research, experience and intuition all support the value to young people of a strong, long-term relationship with a caring, competent adult they can talk to about plans, problems, decisions and their future.
Lars Lægreid emphasized the networking aspect of leadership development as “critically important” young people need to be in contact with people who have “made it” and exposed to a lot of different perspectives and stories of people who have succeeded.
Supporting and guiding the youth leadership programmes without steering the process or taking control can be very difficult for young leaders’ supporters, facilitators and mentors. Providing young people with authentic opportunities is not only about encouraging participation, but also needs to focus on adults ceding power. In our case study interviews, the common thread around support was that the young people and adult volunteers/ facilitators needed support from core staff in order to vent their frustrations and concerns, and share their triumphs.
Recognizing the benefit that both young people and adults gain from working together is at the heart of any successful programme. Programme staffs have a role to play in adjusting expectations and helping adult supporters recognize that the process, rather than the goal, is the important part, but this takes time, capacity and, most of all, a listening ear.
Effective initiatives also organize mutual support networks among the young people in the programme. These may involve connecting participants to successful programme alumni or helping them to form bonds with each other. Peers are a major influence for young people and developing these new friendships and support networks helps them continue on their path to success. Also, for many participants, it is the first time they are being encouraged and rewarded for working towards something positive with peers.
Sustaining the youth leadership journey
Young people: Leading change, stresses that leadership activities and opportunities should be sustainable to ensure that young people can carry their leadership skills into adulthood, and should include clear progression routes and appropriate support at all stages. This can mean providing routes that allow young people to move from local to regional, national and even international opportunities. Alternatively, even when contained on the local community level, there are innovative ways to ensure that young people keep growing and developing. Tower Hamlets Summer University (THSU), for instance, builds an opportunities for young people to ‘dip in as they need to’, and ‘take what they need at the point in their life’. For example, a 13-year-old may want to come along and play football and need a social place to be. In later years, that individual may be making career choices and get involved for those purposes. The organization has a variety of programmes that can help develop young people’s leadership skills such as, the Peer Motivator Scheme and Young Ambassadors Programme and they channel young people into these programmes when enthusiasm is demonstrated. The THSU programme allows young people to find their own direction forward: “It’s not a one-off initiative, where they’ll go away at the end of the year, and if they haven’t done it now it will never happen”.
Effective programmes stress longer-term support for young people, from a minimum of six months to a year, with possibilities for more extended involvement. One way in which programmes can do this is through providing support and regular follow-ups after a young person has ended formal participation in the programme. Another is through structured alumni or graduate programmes, through which former participants can receive mentoring and support while providing orientation and guidance to the next cohort of participants. Similarly, sustained networking opportunities should be provided both during and after completion of a programme. For example, Envision connects young people to a network of experts across many social and environmental fields, and holds events throughout the year so that students have the opportunity to meet other participating Envision teams, and young participants as well as adult volunteers are encouraged to stay involved in the Envision community after their year in the programme. explains, this creates an enduring sense of family and community, which is critical to the sustained success of this programme.
Leadership programmes, for both adults and young people alike, should encourage participants to take on leadership roles in their communities on completion of the programme, and or should encourage them to participate in further leadership development. A key barrier to address here, however, is the lack of co-ordination between organizations offering youth leadership programmes, inhibiting progression or cross-referral between programmes. This can prevent young people from building on advancements and prior learning.
Facilitating young people’s leadership journeys: key lessons
While there is no single model for effective practice, we have identified a number of common ingredients to successful leadership programmes. Effective practice is espoused within opportunities that engage young people in challenging action, around issues that reflect their genuine needs and offer authentic opportunities to make decisions and effect change, in an environment of support in which young people can reflect on their experiences. Opportunities should be sustainable to ensure that young people can carry their leadership skills into adulthood, and should include clear progression routes and appropriate support at all stages.
Developing youth leadership skills in young people is a challenging, complex but important task. There has be a programmes from around the world which we consider to be ‘best practice’ for a variety of reasons, including their ability to engage young people, providing a safe space in which young people can learn to support each other and develop leadership skills, capacity and passions. As our research suggests, the confidence and self-efficacy gained through these safe spaces enables young people to become engaged in civic life more broadly. Successful youth leadership programmes provide pathways for young people to get involved in shaping their world with a wider geography in mind, away from issues that affect them solely as individuals of a particular race, class, faith or gender and onto issues that affect young people more generally as citizens.
Challenges still exist, including the need to make leadership a more accessible and engaging concept for young people. The definition and understanding of leadership must be broadened to include the support work that young people do in their personal lives. This is especially true for disadvantaged and marginalised young people, who often grow up supporting their families and communities. Within organisational contexts, and for those supporting the development of young people, our research reveals that a range of issues must be considered when building programmes and points to the need for a greater emphasis on sustainability of opportunities and support for young people after programmes have finished.
Looking ahead, it will be important to consider how to encourage more young people to be drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship. While the recession poses serious problems for young people in the short term, it also provides a great opportunity for them to shape the future in a substantial way, towards more flexible ways of working, with a greater emphasis on open democracy that utilises technologies of change to inspire wider participation. The example of President Obama and his campaign has shown how influential and powerful young people can be. Youth leadership provision needs to capitalize on that excitement in order to inspire and encourage the next generations to build up their skills and capabilities to make a positive contribution to their communities and societies.