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3 Building Blocks for Developing Student Leaders

By Doug Franklin December 20, 2012

Standing waste deep in freezing cold water, I knew we were in trouble.  It wasn’t water trouble, it was leadership trouble.  On this backpacking trip, Peter and Lindsay had the responsibility of getting our team 30 miles through the Alaskan wilderness.  Every night we had a designated camp where we had to stop.  From where we stood, there were two mountains and a major river to cross before reaching camp.  So far, Peter had been meticulous at picking the route, and under his leadership we were safe and dry.  But now, he had turned the map over to Lindsay, and Lindsay had only one thing on her mind…getting to camp as fast as possible.  This mindset led Lindsay to reason that the quickest way from point A to point B was a straight line.  After 20 minutes under her leadership, we stood in the swamp.

Even though I was cold and sopping wet, I was in luck.  I had all the materials I needed to develop two student leaders.   Over the years, I’ve come to learn that there are 3 materials you need to develop a student leader. 

People:   Standing in the water, I gathered the team around and asked a simple question… “How did we get here?”  One of the quieter students piped up and said “we gave the map to a doer”, she was right.  Peter had been had been this intense thinker, who carefully plotted out our every step.  Lindsay on the other hand, was a great doer.  She just wanted to get where she was going.  The change had spelled disaster for our team. .. I asked the students another question “do we need lindsay?”  The answer was a very quick “yes.”  We needed Lindsay because of her heart, commitment, dedication, perseverance, and ability to motivate the team.  I explained to Peter and Lindsay their value to the team.  I then asked the team, where is the best place for Lindsay.  They all agreed, in the back.  From the back, she could encourage those that were struggling, and she could use her perseverance to move the team.  We were all pleased to give the map back to Peter.    Having a leadership mentor there for Peter and Lindsay, helped make a teachable moment out of disaster.  This is what every student leader needs.  A mentor or guides that will not judge their mistakes, but will help them turn their mistakes into wins.  If you’re reading this, you probably realize that you’re one of those people.

Place:  The second thing I had going for me was the place.  You might be thinking a swamp isn’t the best place, but here’s why it was.  Students need a place where they can own leadership responsibilities, and make decisions that lead to success or failure.  That map gave Peter and Lindsay ownership.  Just the simple task of figuring out where we were and where we were going created a leadership laboratory for them.  Decisions that have real consequences require student leaders to be more intense and take more risks.  This will mold your students into better leaders.  As leadership mentors, we need to find more experiences where students own the consequences.  These experiences need to be engaging and something that the students are passionate about.  Not just the leftovers that no one else wants to do.

Peers:  The third thing I had going for me was that Peter and Lindsay were working together.  When student leaders work together, there is a natural sharpening and challenge factor that takes place.  The expectation is higher, and the students feel like they can dream more and take more risks, after all, someone is in it with them.  A peer can challenge and stretch the leadership potential of another peer in a way that an adult could never accomplish.  When doing student leadership development, make sure that there is more than one student in charge.  When students are paired up or working in teams, synergy is built between their ideas and their actions.  Intangible growth takes place in the process of peers leading alongside other peers.

The 3 building blocks to great student leadership development are people, places, and peers.  As youth workers, we need to be intentional about putting these building blocks into place.  Are you and your adult volunteers mentoring students as leaders?  Do your students have a leadership laboratory where they can own their decisions?  Are they working together, or spread a part?  Answering these questions is tough, but vital to building your students into leaders.

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More