Teenagers are often subconsciously drawn to run for leadership positions because success would be an affirmation of their popularity and place within the social hierarchy. By the same token however, many more students won’t run for a leadership role for the inverse reason: they subconsciously fear that their lack of popularity will be affirmed.
Student leadership elections cannot therefore be held ‘cold’, we need to ensure that they are not merely popularity contests, which reaffirm existing forms of social stratification. Unlike a parliamentary election, a quality student leadership process doesn’t begin in the year of the election, it begins on the first day that a student starts in the school. Student leadership is developed from day one and is fostered in a culture that is rooted in community values.
The values of a community are not just a list of aspirational qualities listed on the school website, they are the modus operandi, normalised in the culture of a school at all levels. For example, if kindness, integrity, service and empathy are qualities that are expected and rewarded from day one, the students will learn to recognise those qualities as paramount and by the time a cohort of students arrive at an age at which they elect someone from amongst their ranks as a leader, they will be instinctively drawn to support those of their fellow students who exhibit these qualities and similarly, when called to nominate, the students themselves are more likely to put themselves forward, trusting these qualities in the manner in which their nomination will be received amongst their peers.
When the time for student nominations arrives, dedicate at least one full school day to consolidating those years of learning about the qualities of leadership. If we want the students to understand the election process to be important, demonstrate this by having them off classes, on a structured programme, well-prepared and led by significant members of the academic leadership team: Implicitly demonstrate to them how important they are and how important the process is. Empower all members of the cohort to write a speech and encourage as many as possible to nominate.
Don’t let this ‘leadership day’ be the first time that they have heard the link between values and leadership; however, embed this dialogue into regular conversation and into learning. Talk openly about the qualities of a leader and recognise these qualities when students demonstrate them; do this often and consistently over the long term. Encourage a servant leadership mentality, make those two words inexplicably linked: leadership = service. Normalise this link so that one seeks a position so that they can be of service to others and to enhance this link, do everything you can to ensure that all members of the school community emulate this everyday: This isn’t just good for developing quality student leaders, this leads to quality learning outcomes.
Encourage all students to see themselves as leaders, leaders of their peers, their juniors, their seniors and/or their teachers, in different scenarios in different moments, some big, some small, and embed these leadership moments into the fabric and traditions of the school. Empower students to serve, to offer feedback, even to their teachers, teach your students to be listeners who feed forward from the feedback that they receive. Teach them to be ‘connectors’ who listen to understand and then connect people to people and people to ideas, based upon what has been communicated.
If you do all of this in a school, there will, however, always still be some element of popularity playing at least some role in the outcome of every leadership election. This is a part of the reality of life too and this is something that our students also need to learn. Whilst they are young however, why not temper this, even a little, and direct them to aspire to a higher ideal of leadership. The youth are generally more optimistic and if we give them the chance to be better than us, their elders, there is always the chance that they will end up teaching us a few lessons about leadership through their example. Quality leadership is rooted in service, a sense that one is equipped to serve those around us and this notion is rooted in values such as kindness, integrity and empathy. Harnessing and encouraging the desire that many young people have to lead and coupling it with these values, over an extended period, sets us up not only to produce high quality student leaders, but more importantly, a cooperative learning community that will achieve high quality learning outcomes as a result. As our 2021 school theme affirms, we are always better together.
By James Unsworth J.P. (Qual.)
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