Four Ideas to Cultivate Young Leaders

By Tim Elmore


I once mentored a student named Rick who could have been voted by his classmates: The Least Likely to Become a Leader. He was unassuming, never assertive, quiet, and even introverted. In fact, I scared him the first time I suggested he should lead a group of peers. When he balked, I knew I needed to step back, slow down, and encourage him through a stage-by-stage process. 

  • First, I encouraged him to merely join a study group and participate in a community.
  • Second, I invited him to join a training experience to give him exposure to leadership.
  • Then, I encouraged him to help me make some decisions on our larger objective.
  • Next, I asked him to apprentice alongside a leader and watch her lead a group.
  • Finally, I invited him to lead a team and provided ongoing evaluation to guide him.


Rick’s story has been multiplied thousands of times over my career. In fact, I’ve given my life to the task of nurturing young people into leadership. I’ve tried to help kids see themselves as a leader, an influencer who commits to solving problems and serving people. Once they realize that leadership is less about a position and more about a disposition, the light bulb goes on.


So, what are the fundamentals to make this happen?


The Essential Ingredients

When we bake a chocolate cake, we know there are essential ingredients that make the recipe work. For that matter, baking or cooking anything tasty is not random. There are fundamental ingredients that must be added to reach a flavorful outcome. Similarly, when I see leaders cultivating healthy, young leaders out of students, there are four ingredients that always go into the recipe. I see four elements in the process that I call The Big IDEA. 


The Big IDEA

I — Instruction

Leaders must provide verbal insights and explanations through discussion. This furnishes teams with insights into both the “why” as well as the “what.” This interaction can happen in classrooms or anywhere with a goal of guiding their discovery process. We use images, metaphors, and memorable phrases (Habitudes®) that summarize concepts. People need conversations.


D — Demonstration 

Leaders must find ways to model what the insight looks like in real life. This furnishes students with confidence and vision. This example can be as simple as watching someone—in person or on video—practicing the concept they must learn. It is an important element because people do what people see. It’s caught as well as taught. People need observation.


E — Experience 

Leaders must turn teens loose to practice the insight on their own, to apply the knowledge. This builds skills and abilities. I believe learning isn’t complete until they have executed tasks for themselves. This process ensures that theory becomes practice. If students lack experience today, it’s often because we fear they won’t execute it perfectly. We must push past that fear and let them practice. People need application. 


A — Assessment 

Leaders must take time to debrief and evaluate the learning outcomes with teens. This furnishes them with wisdom and perspective. I don’t believe experience is the best teacher; I believe experience plus evaluation is the best teacher. We must take time to assess what happened so that people gain helpful insight from their practice. They need evaluation.


If Rick could talk to you, he would affirm that this process was what helped him move from an ordinary student to a growing leader. 


When I moved from San Diego, Rick not only had led study groups for years, but he was also leading all of the study group leaders. He had multiplied his influence. Through repetition, he recognized he was pretty good at solving problems and serving people. The fact is, leadership matters and it matters disproportionately. 


Let’s go build a new generation of leaders.


 If this topic energizes you, check out our digital resource:

Habitudes for Building Student Leaders.



Four Ideas to Cultivate Young Leaders