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Extension > Youth Development Insight > Is there a leadership gap?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Is there a leadership gap?

By Brian McNeill

When I'm out working with community organizations, I hear this complaint from many local leaders: "There are no young people stepping forward to replace me on this committee!" They seem frustrated that they can't leave a community committee because there's no one to replace them. This made me wonder, is there really a leadership gap, and if so, why?

Here’s what young people said in a recent survey by the National 4-H Council:
  • Most young people (81%) think leaders today are more concerned with their own agendas than with achieving the goals of their organizations.
  • Seventy-six percent say leaders are focused on different priorities than what matters most to them.
  • Half of youth rate government and political leaders as having weak leadership (51%), among the highest relative to other groups of leaders examined in the survey. Overall, weak leadership is related to not accomplishing what is promised (59%); not working collaboratively (56%); and not offering new solutions (53%).
  • Most youth (96%) think leadership is important to addressing the country’s most pressing issues; but only one in three young people says they have the skills they need to be prepared to lead.

If this is what young people believe about community leadership, no wonder they aren't taking an interest in leadership positions!

These stats paint a picture of why they aren't stepping up. As to the perceived lack of leadership skills, a report from Karen Pittman and Shanetta Martin sheds some light. I appreciate their concept and idea around youth engagement as a strategy for community change. This is the “hook” we as adults need to use to get young people to be active participants on community boards. We need to convince them that they can make a difference, create change and have the influence they desire.

As I interact with high school youth and watch my own teens build their leadership skills, I am encouraged. The youth of today do have the skills -- they just need to be shown the difference they can make as a leader. There are multiple ways young people can learn the skills to be leaders. Schools and communities offer a variety of ways that young people can participate and learn lifelong leadership skills. As adults, we need to help show and encourage youth to join school groups or community groups and dive in to start building leadership skills.

Have you seen this problem in your community? How have you tackled it? Have you shown youth how they can become involved in their school or community? How have you supported young people in their leadership? How have you helped adults see the power of getting young people involved? Please share your stories.

-- Brian McNeill, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

18 comments:

  1. Hello, Brian. I appreciate your taking on this topic and sharing your wisdom and resources. My own experiences show me that youth can be just as much leaders in their communities as adults. Youth are not "leaders of tomorrow": they are "leaders today"! Just as adults may not have leadership skills and need to learn them, so can youth learn and lead for community change. The "hook" of focusing on community change is an excellent way for youth to understand the need for various forms of leadership and help them to find their place in leadership and their communities, too. Even more than adults, young people can bring their perspective and their creativity to improving communities, developing healthy communities, and deepening communal bonds. Thanks again for speaking to this topic.

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    1. Heidi, thanks for taking time and reading the article. It has been something I have been pondering for a while and needed to share. You are right on by saying "youth are the leaders today!" Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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  2. Great topic, Brian! Reluctant leadership is common in adults and also with youth, I believe. Until they have a meaningful chance to test out their leadership skills in a somewhat safe and supported role, they assume they are not capable. I like the idea of co-leadership opportunities: a chance for an adult to create an opportunity and ask a youth to co-lead with them in planning an event, or chairing a committee, or demonstrating/teaching a skill. That way youth have some safety net and opportunity for feedback as their skills are developing. I also believe we can all contribute to helping community members with valuing youth voice as we take on community change. Have any of you asked a youth to co-lead on a project or committee and had some success with this?

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    1. Margo, Thanks for taking time and readying the article and sharing your thoughts. You pose a great question! Yes I have provided opportunities for youth to co-lead projects and positions with me and other adults. As you said "this is a great a safe place for youth to learn the skills." Those experiences have been some of the most rewarding parts of the job. Thanks for the question!

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  3. Brian- Great post. I too have been reviewing the survey and pondering how we can help make a difference. We could call the concern reluctant leadership, a leadership gap, or something else; the point is we need to be paying attention to this shift.

    You stated that "...no wonder they aren't taking an interest in leadership positions!" I respectfully disagree. Generally speaking, I believe youth are interested. One of the findings in that survey was that youth feel their generation can do better! Of those surveyed, 3 of 4 are currently in a leadership role. So where are they serving?

    Perhaps a strategy we need to use more is to be more intentional in our recruitment and development of leaders where we see a need. Back and 2013 the Blandin Foundation, in the Rural Pulse Survey, found that many adults that had never served in a leadership role would definitely consider serving if they were asked. I'm guessing the same is true for the youth in our communities.

    http://www.ruralpulse.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Rural-MN-serve-if-asked-NW-MN-1024x362.png




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    1. Mark, thank you for taking time to read the article and posting your thoughts. I appreciate your disagreement. I probably took a strong stances with that statement. But something I have observed. I have also read research and thanks for posting the other link. It is always interesting to see the research but also observe something different.

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  4. Thank you Brian for addressing this issue. I believe that youth who have opportunities to participate in and experience leadership personally see how they can take that involvement and leadership in a new direction. For example, being a youth member of a City Council, a county Fairboard, a County Extension Committee or even a school board allows young people to see leadership in action. They have a voice, likely not always a voting member, but they have a safe place to watch others in leadership and engage. For many youth, this is a springboard to other service and leadership because they have personal experience of how it works. I also believe that youth who have experienced modeling of service and leadership tend to become more engaged and participatory. If a young person has not seen someone they know who is willing to serve and give of themselves, they may not find value in doing that themselves, or if they hear others always discrediting other leaders, they may find themselves following that model. Asking youth for their input and ideas, finding ways for them to get involved as youth or asking them to become involved, and encouraging them as they pursue opportunities are all ways that will help them make a difference and feel empowered to move forward as leaders.

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    1. Kia, thank you for taking time to read the blog article and providing your thoughts on this subject. I appreciate you listing the opportunities in the community where you can have voice and also learn leadership skills. I also appreciate your perspective on getting youth to share their ideas and helping them with their voice! Thanks for your insight!

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  5. Thanks for sharing the National 4-H Council report. I see some beautiful themes in the results that give me an optimistic view of the future in regard to leadership that is grounded in serving the common good and public interests.

    Programs with an an issue-orientation is a great way to engage and involve youth and cultivate leadership skills . When youth have opportunities to address issues that matter, engagement and motivation to stay involved usually goes up. They see that their actions have an impact at home and can see how their actions could have an impact in a larger arena as well.

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    1. Jennifer, thank you for taking time to read the article and provide your perspective. I am glad that National 4-H have been sharing their research with us so we can see either the impact of our programs or the potential gaps of our work. Thank you again for sharing your insight.

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  6. Thank you Brian,

    This is an interesting twist. I like how you say that it isn't just the next generation that lacks the understanding - it is the current leaders that choose not to understand their communities at the expense of youth. What encourages me as I also work with youth is how nimble they are in their desire for understanding. Rather than focus on one issue - they care about a lot of issues - which is soothing to me in a tense political climate that appears to be very self-centered and as you indicated in your post.

    Directing our youth programs to balance a wide variety of issues makes complete sense. Look for those additions in my own program development - stay tuned? Want in?

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    1. Josh, thank you for taking time to read the article and post your thoughts and comments. It will take some dedication to begin to direct our youth programs. But that could be exciting to move this forward. Hard work can be fun to do!!

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  7. Brian, thank you for this interesting blog. I really appreciated that you shared some informative data at the front end of the blog. Understanding the youth perception is important when thinking about how to change our engagement strategies. Their perception may or may not match the reality in communities but all the same it is important for us to pay attention to it. One resource I have found very helpful when visiting with adults who are interested in engaging youth and adults in leadership roles is the International Association of Public Participation (iAP2) core values and public participation continuum. I believe when bringing new people into leadership roles we have to give them a chance to feel empowered to make a difference. Daniel Pink in his research talks about autonomy as one of the critical elements that motivates people. Check it out. www.iap2.org

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    1. Tobi, thank you for taking time to read and reply to my blog article. I appreciate you sharing your resources and I will be checking them out. It is always nice to have more places of resources.

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  8. Brian- The research you shared is right on! I often ask some of my youth leaders why they do not get more involved in organizations outside of the 4-H program and use their leaderships skills they have learned. The most common response has been feeling that their voice will not be heard and not being able to use their leadership skills , because they are not given the opportunity. We have become a " quantity over quality" society, that new leaders on these boards are not given a chance to take on much leadership as it is often passed on to someone with more knowledge or experience. I think the only way we will see more of these young people expand in these leadership skills and get more involved in organizations is to make sure our present leaders are making their organizations welcoming.We need to find better ways to make the connection between our present and future leaders for the sake of our society to prosper. We are fortunate to be involved in a program that is encouraging in making that happen!

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    1. Suzanne, thanks for reading the replying to this blog. I value your feedback and would agree with your statement. I also agree finding the connection between the present and future leaders. This will take some time but will be well worth the effort!

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  10. Brian, thank you for the post and for generating such good discussions. In my interacting with high school 4-H youth, they often shared that they often did not feel listened to when being involved with leadership opportunities that involved adults. At times, adults invite youth into an opportunity but may not give them a chance to learn what leadership actually is, looks like, and the opportunity to demonstrate it. Unfortunately, not all adults have had the youth development training that those of us who serve in this capacity in Extension.
    Taking the time to inform both adults and youth what leadership can look like is important. Teaching about a strength based approach to leadership and how not all leaders use the same characteristics is important. Showing youth that they can become leaders by focusing on their strengths and not comparing themselves to other leaders is key. It is important for young people to learn about and examine what leadership can look like at a national, state, and local level. If we (adults) can take leadership from a concept to a practical thing, I believe we would see a growth in community involvement from young people.
    As the survey helps demonstrate, we need to show youth that real leadership is based on service and not on individual need. Making this connection will help young people see community leadership in a more positive and meaningful way and hopefully help them to become the kind of future community leaders that serve to better their communities.

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