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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Schools That Hinder Leadership in Students


photo credit: dok1 via photopin cc

This month, I got an email from my publisher, sharing a story from the student body president at the local high school. Her daughter attends this school. The student was grieving the fact that he’d been asked to “lead”, but every single decision his student council made was shot down by the administration. In his blog he wrote:

“We have lost our motivation to try to engage the students, generate enthusiasm and a sense of community and make being a Greeley student more than capitulating to the arbitrary decisions of the administration. Why bother working on proposals and trying to innovate when we know the administration is going to say no? It’s funny that we are all so frustrated with our elected officials in Washington, yet the same thing is happening right here. Each time a new idea comes to the floor, we get filibustered, then are left to take the blame for not taking action.”

As an adult, I recognize school administrators are often trying to insure the safety of their students, or perhaps save those students from demoralizing failure. But I fear something worse could happen. In our effort to protect the kids or our reputation, we are killing any ambition in these emerging leaders. We accomplish the very opposite of what school is supposed to do: build future adults. The blog went on:

“I don’t feel as if I’m doing even half the job I ran for as President and the reason for that is the administration. For us, high school is more than just getting into college. It’s supposed to be an experience that matures us not just intellectually, but in other ways too…This school has become so resistant to positive new ideas that students actually care about…that nothing even has a chance. For example, how do we know that the event I proposed would have an attendance problem if it’s never happened before?”

I believe there is nothing more frustrating for a student than to be asked to lead and prepared to lead, then not given the opportunity to actually do something. I fear we are leading schools that actually hinder the development of true leaders. The student body president concluded in his blog:

You are denying leadership opportunities to the next generation of leaders by rendering those who do want to lead utterly ineffective. It’s simply not worth my time to think of fun, creative ways to bring the school community together when I know that there is no chance of any of our ideas actually coming to fruition.

My advice to These School Administrators?

  1. Negotiate ideas with student leaders and learn to compromise. Teens must learn to mitigate risk, spend money and even fail from time to time. Let them.
  2. Talk to parents as the year begins, and help them see the big picture: school is about learning and growth and that happens via both success and failure.
  3. Reward effort and virtue. Student Councils will “win” some and “lose” some. The point is to grow in them the life skills needed for adulthood.

Never let it be said that you run a school that hinders young leaders.


  1. Anne Ostholthoff on March 25, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    I so appreciate this article passed along to me by a dear friend and colleague who has worked beside me for over 12 years with public school administrators, educators and students in two states.The challenge here is exactly as stated. I’d add another idea for helping students HAVE a voice that is listened to and perhaps more likely to be acted upon: An Administrator hosts a student/parent/teacher association meeting where the students are in charge! Let the entire community respond to the students ideas — and let the students be given a chance to demonstrate their very real ability to be responsible, respectful, positive contributing individuals to our communities — what we want, right?! Thanks Tim for sharing this. I will share it with others as well. Anne Ostholthoff

  2. Antone on March 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    And this post applies to those in college as well. I love the emphasis Tim gives in his Gen iY book about how to deal with our kids – high school or college. And that is using EPIC – teaching that is Experiential, Participatory, Image rich, and Connected. Students have to be given the ability to do things in a safe environment where a “fail” may occur but there are mentors and guides around them to help those students move to success. It is common knowledge that we learn by doing but yet we fear giving our students opportunities to lead and make decisions within an accountable environment. The college-age students who I have the privilege to teach are tech-savvy, creative, innovative, and collaborative. They desire my leadership and having a say in things. It has made for a win-win teaching environment that moves me from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” Dan Pink said it well: “We need to prepare kids for their future and not our past.” The top-down leadership models of yesterday do not work with this generation of students – they need to be involved and have a vested interest in their school. It is leadership creating leadership. Everybody wins.

    • Tim Elmore on March 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      It sounds like you’re leading your students well. Thanks for taking time to share your experiences with us. Keep up the great work!

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Schools That Hinder Leadership in Students