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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


How to Harness a Young Leader

During September, I got a direct tweet from a friend/follower on Twitter. The sender was questioning why I used the word, “harness” as I spoke of developing young people. He felt like it implied “control” instead of releasing young people to pursue their own aspirations. It was respectful and legitimate. My message back, however, needs to take the form of a blog post…it’s just too long for a tweet.

First, let me say—I recognize the word “harness” can feel a bit controlling. If you know me, you understand I’m an opponent of trying to “control” students. In fact, I believe “connection” not control should be our aim. Control is a myth and a terrible goal. If we genuinely connect with young people, however, we’re able to guide them and as a result, the sense of being under control is a by-product. The mentor and young mentee align and make progress.

However, I still believe the word “harness” is a good word to describe what we must do for young adults.  Here’s why.

Think: Wild Stallion

Think of a wild stallion for a moment. Young adults today have grown up in a culture where they receive data on-line 24/7, can tweet their every thought or emotion and have options coming from all directions. It’s no wonder the word “overwhelmed” is the top word college student use to describe their life.

young leader

They are a little like a wild stallion. Lots of energy, but often going in many directions. They often receive no wise counsel from others. I realize this will sound a bit controversial, but twenty-somethings and teens may need exactly what an untamed horse might need:

1.    To be broken.

By this I don’t mean harmed. I mean broken of their self-absorbed ways, broken of their immature attitudes that fail to see the big picture. I needed to be broken on my first job—and I bet you did too. Life’s not about me. Like wild horses, this is a good thing. They’re exposed to a bigger picture mission.

2.    To be harnessed.

A harness is used with a horse to be able to guide them. As an analogy, I do not mean we are the “rider” or the master, but we do need a way to provide direction. We are “guides” not “gods.” This enables them to align their energy and move in a direction, like a river not a flood. They desperately need this.

3.    To be led.

Leading a horse means gently tugging a bit to the right or left, as they need help…but they do the walking or running. For a young leader, this means we show them the ropes and enable them to flourish with the insight or wisdom we’ve collected over the years, then let them run toward a goal.

It sounds so wonderful to say—we don’t want to harness kids today, but I’ve been working with students since 1979. Ugh. Helping them harness their energy is not the same as hindering them. In fact, to fail to help them harness their energy into something positive is abuse. Karaoke Parents, who want to talk like their child, look like their child, dress like their child so they can remain a “pal” more than a parent, usually don’t lead them well. They may “connect” with their teen, but they likely fail to provide the leadership their child needs to flourish as an adult. Think about it. Once a wild horse is broken and harnessed, their energy is aligned and purposeful.

I understand the wild horse analogy breaks down if you take it to an extreme. But I wanted you to understand what I mean when I say “harness.”

OK. Talk to me. What are your thoughts?



  1. Paul Jolicoeur on October 1, 2013 at 6:37 am

    I think you hit it dead on. Young leaders are sometimes so full of raw material, that the only way they can reach their full potential is to be “harnessed”. Raw material is great and necessary, but if it isn’t refined it won’t be of any use to anyone.

    • Tim Elmore on October 1, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Glad you agree, thanks for the comment Paul.

  2. charlene.fonseca on October 1, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Psalm 32:9 Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. Where there is lack of good understanding, there has to be something in place. I personally did not need a harness of any sort in school, as I had one at home that kept me in gear all day at school. Some day when the lion lies with the lamb, we won’t need these tools so much.

    • Tim Elmore on October 1, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      Love the analogies, thank for sharing Charlene!

  3. John Meese on October 1, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Love this. In today’s world there’s often a huge movement of “I don’t want to control you. Be yourself!” which pushes back against any sort of leadership. I once visited a Hindu temple (though I’m Christian) and saw a cute toddler being taught how to kneel by his father. A friend with me saw the same thing, but she later referred to what she saw as “Religious Indoctrination,” while what I saw was a loving father sharing his faith and practice with his child. Teaching him to follow in his footsteps- a noble endeavor.

    • Tim Elmore on October 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      I think there is definitely a balance between teaching your kids versus controlling them. I strive to teach and mentor, but also equip my kids with the tools to formulate their own opinions and beliefs. Sounds like the father in your example was simply being a teacher! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wanda Beery on October 1, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Fantastic! I have been working and living wtih highschool kids at a children’s home for the past 11 years. I have seen first hand that “connection”, not “control”, will yeild more success for the student. The child is more willing to listen, to connect, if they believe that the adult is being genuine in their efforts to instruct/lead.

    • Tim Elmore on October 1, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      Absolutely so true. I have also found that to be the case. By connecting first, students understand that I am more interested in who they are, not in shoving information at them. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Jonathan Yoder on October 4, 2013 at 8:23 am

    This is a great analogy, I have a question though. In my experience of Gen IY they do not like the thought of being controlled. How can we prove to them that we want their best by these guidelines. How do we truly let them know that the guidelines we set up for them will make them grow as an adult. Also, there seems to be a contempt towards being grown up in many teens I know. It’s truly hard to make someone desire something different.

  6. Joseph Preston on October 5, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Speaking as a leader of young adults in a Christian camp setting, as well as someone who works with horses, I think you’ve made good use of a great analogy. The term “broken” probably did come from an earlier era of horse training in which a trainer forced the horse into submission until the horse’s spirit was “broken.” Nowadays, horse trainers finally realize that you don’t want to destroy a horse’s spirit. Instead, you want to teach the horse to submit willingly to the rider so that the horse’s power is channeled into achieving what the horse does best. Harnessing that power, you guide the horse in the right direction. As the rider learns to give clear signals and guidance, the horse stops responding
    with wild, disorderly energy and begins to focus that energy into beautiful,
    skillful motion. Young people also need clear guidance from caring adults who
    can help focus their energy into good directions for their lives. Brokenness as
    you’ve described it is necessary. When young people learn to give up their
    self-centeredness and find that life is not all about themselves, then they are
    ready to do great things with their lives. Guidance doesn’t hinder; it empowers.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:40 am

      Wow, great words. I think it drills the point down even more to hear it from you, having experience with the literal concept behind the analogy as well as leading young people. Thanks so much for sharing with all of us.

  7. Lizzy on October 7, 2013 at 12:45 am

    I think your point about being broken is really good. It’s a topic that is rarely talked about. Humility is shunned in this society. But there will always be times when we as humans will reach a point where we need some one else, or we mess up trying to do it on our own and fall flat on our face. Part of leadership is teaching young people how to react to those moments, not how to avoid them.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Thanks for your comment, Lizzy. I am happy to hear you resonate with this idea of brokenness and humility. I think it is up to us to equip our young people to handle these situations, so that they use them to grow, not sink.

  8. Amy on October 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

    As a young college student, I totally agree with this. As young people, we are overwhelmed by information everywhere. I think we have even grown so accustomed to having information thrown at us all the time, we do not know how to shut it off. Our pride needs to continue to get shot down and realize that life takes hard work, and we need the help of older, wiser counsel. This article resonated with me as a young person, and I say to all that our older help us and lead the way. Even if we don’t seem to want it, we need it.

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How to Harness a Young Leader