A few weeks ago, seven high school and college students organized an effort to get a petition signed that would create a mask-wearing policy in their city of Savannah, GA. I spoke to them about their strategy to reach their goal and why it felt so important. Each student found his or her own way to articulate why their aspiration was meaningful.
When I suggested they were leaders, however, they all balked.
It was uncanny. While it seemed obvious to me these young people were leading, they rejected this idea. Not one of them perceived themselves as leaders. In fact, as we bantered, I questioned their conclusions and the topic became heated. The truth eventually came to light. These young adults saw leadership as a power trip, illustrated by squabbling politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C. It was at this point something dawned on me. I wondered if a generation of adults unwittingly turned some students off to leadership because of the way they led. I’m not merely blaming politicians—too many times adults of all ages have modeled an uncivil, angry, and immature style of leadership for kids. It’s no wonder they reject it.
We may have to redefine leadership and model a different way.
Three Questions That Challenge Students to Lead
Sometimes it’s best to foster growth through questions. Instead of arguing, what if we simply posed questions to students that could turn on a light bulb in their minds. It allows you to stop pushing and to start pulling them toward a better understanding of leadership. In fact, I’d even suggest there’s nothing magical about the word leadership. Drop it if it intimidates your students and find other terms that they’ll embrace. Start with these.
1. If you don’t want to be the leader, do you at least want to serve?
Generation Z, much like the millennials, has a predisposition to serve mankind. Regardless of their spiritual or religious background, peer pressure today nudges young people to serve the marginalized and any causes that foster justice or equality. According to research from Cone Communications, almost 30 percent of Gen Z are very concerned about the impact of poverty and hunger and prioritize it over the issue of economic development. Other top causes include the environment, human rights, and equality. A Pew Research Center survey shows that 62 percent of Gen Z sees more diversity in society as a good thing. It’s why a surprising number of students have joined in the Black Lives Matter protests.
So, I suggest you allow them to shun the title of leader at first and simply inquire if they want to serve people. This is how pure leadership usually begins. Someone chooses to act on behalf of an underserved population, and they become a leader naturally. Leadership is a by-product, not an aspiration.
2. If you don’t want to be in charge, do you at least want to influence others?
In my experience, most students do not begin their leadership journey by declaring themselves a leader. Most shy away from the responsibility or expectations of leadership. So, we shouldn’t start with that reality. Instead, begin with the fact that most young people long to positively influence others. The conversation must change from gaining titles to earning trust. I believe authentic leadership has less to do with position and more to do with a disposition. And when leaders build solid relationships, they can often achieve the results they desire. In fact, often the most influential person in the room is not the positioned leader but someone on the team who can sway the opinions of the others.
Once you convince a young person that the foundation of leadership is relationships, they often will embrace the responsibility. In a recent interview I hosted with Cheryl Bachelder, the former CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, she suggested that courage is hard, but comes much more easily when it’s required on behalf of others, not yourself. It’s why a parent rushes into a burning house to rescue a child. That mom or dad may not consider themselves a courageous leader, but when it’s about helping someone they care about, it’s a no brainer. So, I suggest you focus the conversation around positively influencing people.
3. If you don’t want to lead, do you at least want to improve current conditions?
A third question that may enable you to persuade a student to lead surrounds the issue of making the world better. Most of the young people I know want to “make a difference” and to “change the world.” Even if they don’t completely know what they’re talking about, they long to be a part of solving a problem—like digging wells in African countries that don’t have access to clean drinking water or even improving a local dilemma in their community.
Years ago, I worked with a high school senior who, by nature, was pretty selfish. All she seemed to care about was her social media platforms and how many likes she accumulated. Along the way, we talked about what was “wrong” on her school’s campus, and she got fired up about how a new soft drink machine was desperately needed in the dining hall. That issue transitioned her from a passive student to a leader. She led the charge to get that vending machine on campus. So, I suggest you focus the conversation with students on what needs to be changed and how they could use their passion and gifts to help.