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Growing changemakers with the 4-H Leadership Tree

By Jacquie Lonning & Amber Shanahan

The 4-H Leadership Tree
We are proud to introduce Minnesota 4-H’s foundational youth leadership framework--The Leadership Tree--developed to illuminate the pathways that inspire young people to be innovative social change agents through the Minnesota 4-H Youth Development program.

The purpose of the 4-H Leadership Tree

Leadership skills are acquired at all ages and in many forms for youth. The Leadership Tree was designed to define leadership at various levels and outline diverse access points for a young leader to engage in programming, no matter their age or prior leadership experiences. In articulating these definitions and pathways, we hoped to provide our Minnesota 4-H staff, along with other youth workers, with a framework to enhance the quality of current leadership offerings, identify gaps for new programs, and provide youth with a roadmap of how to learn and lead through our program.

Once we landed on the tree as our main metaphor, our ideas took root (see what we did there?!) and we could line up what we were learning through the literature and our interviews with the growth of a tree – from when a seed is planted to when the tree matures and produces seeds that eventually lead to new growth. This led to defining five phases of youth leadership development – exploring, emerging, developing, advancing, and exemplary.

Youth as learners 

In the first two levels, youth leadership growth is focused on learning – or what happens below the ground to set a foundation for future leadership. 
  • Exploring: The first level of exploring leadership is where a young person is exploring their interest areas and starting to think about deepening their involvement. Youth are inspired to lead when they either saw other youth in leadership roles, someone encouraged them to take on more responsibility, or a combination of both. 
  • Emerging: As emerging leaders, youth are taking on informal leadership roles like stepping in front of a group to lead an activity or show up early to prepare for an event. Or, they may be attending workshops that focus on leadership skill acquisition.

Youth as leaders

In the next two levels, youth leadership is focused on leading – the above the ground elements of our tree. 
  • Developing: In the developing leadership phase, youth are taking on roles where they work with others towards a common goal. They may be part of a team, a committee, or another group that connects to take action on something. Through these activities, they are learning how to work collectively, while also developing a sense of where their skills and opportunities lie. 
  • Advancing: Next, they have the opportunity to build out the branches of their tree and step into advancing leadership. While they may still be part of a team in these roles, they are taking on increasing responsibilities with less support and guidance from others.

Youth as social change agents

  • Exemplary: Our last level is exemplary leadership – where we see our youth as social change agents. Youth are leveraging the skills they’ve gained to take action on an issue they care about. These youth leaders are able to incorporate and apply diverse perspectives to make a positive change in their community. They are still supported by adults, however, they possess the ability and confidence to direct their own efforts. To continue with our metaphor – these youth are “bearing fruit” to nourish others, “providing shade” to protect others, and “planting seeds” that will inspire future leaders.

There are a few key assumptions of our leadership model

  1. Youth responsibility and accountability grow over time – as youth mature in their leadership, they take on increasingly complex tasks and are able to follow through on goals.  
  2. Youth have opportunities to learn, practice, and apply leadership – key to the experiential learning model, young people should have the opportunity to both learn and lead, and an emphasis on learning should continue throughout, with specific attention to global citizenship skill development.
  3. Youth see leadership as a process, not a position – this is different from many traditional leadership models that may look at leaders only as those who hold a position of authority where they are in front of their followers. In this view – all youth have the opportunity to do leadership, regardless of them having the title to guarantee it.
  4. Youth have supportive relationships with adults – the “grownups” in a young person’s leadership journey serve as the gardeners along the way. They ensure that the young person has the challenge and support (nutrients) and guidance (pruning) to succeed.

Think back to when you first started developing your leadership skills. What was it that you were doing? What inspired you to take action? And how does The Leadership Tree apply to your own leadership journey? How can this framework support your leadership programs?

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.

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  1. I really enjoy this model and metaphor! I hope we will get to hear more about how we as youth workers can support especially those early stages.

    1. I really enjoy the metaphor as well! We hope to spend some time breaking down the stages in future blog posts, and we will also be sharing some additional tools with our staff. A few key things though about those early stages though - when youth saw other young people leading, that was a key influencer on sparking their interest in taking on a leadership role. As a youth worker, I think about how and where I use young people in leadership roles, and how I can shine a little light on them too so that their contributions are illuminated for others to recognize -- this acknowledges the efforts of the youth leader, but also plants a seed for others in thinking of themselves in that role.

      Another key element in the early stages and throughout the leadership development pathway is ensuring there is encouragement for youth to "level up". This encouragement can come from peers, older youth, staff, volunteers, etc, and/or can be built into goal-setting activities where youth are envisioning where they want to go and identifying the steps to get there. As a youth worker, when we get the opportunity to know a young person's sparks and/or goals, we have an opportunity to guide them in their growth -- doing a little bit of pruning, if you will. :)

      What things do you see working in your local program? Or what things are you seeing that you hope are doing this?

  2. Jacquie & Amber,

    I am so excited to see youth leadership articulated as a process and to see that you will have a session during Youth & U about this! Understanding the needs of youth as leaders, meeting them where they are at, and working with them to build these skills - is so critical to their success (and engagement)! I am excited to learn more about this!

    1. Leigh - we are excited to build this with you! We have such great opportunities, like YOUth and U, to learn how to support our youth and share with each other what is working...and troubleshoot what is not. What do you see working in your local program?


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