• Carolyn Prins

Developing Youth Leadership

What comes to mind when you think of a leader? Someone with power? Control? Fame?

Though a leader may have some or all of these attributes, these are not what define leadership. Leadership has been described in a variety of ways including:

  • "The ability to mobilize people to face problems."[5]

  • "... a process by which an individual influences a group to achieve a common goal."[5]

  • "...a relational process combining ability (knowledge, skills, and talents) with authority (voice, influence, and decision-making power) to positively influence and impact diverse individuals, organizations, and communities." [4]

Due to the wide range in definition and application of leadership, establishing a single definition of leadership could limit its development. Conner et. al proposes that "... relying on a single, static definition of leadership ...may alienate those youth who cannot or do not wish to be cast in that specific part. A broader, more flexible conceptualization of leadership can play to different youth’s strengths, improving the likelihood that they will become engaged in the organization and in their communities in meaningful ways. "[2]

"... relying on a single, static definition of leadership ...may alienate those youth who cannot or do not wish to be cast in that specific part. A broader, more flexible conceptualization of leadership can play to different youth’s strengths, improving the likelihood that they will become engaged in the organization and in their communities in meaningful ways. "

When you look at leadership research in the context of youth leadership, it becomes evident that the description and mention of youth leadership often focuses on the development of leadership as a tool to be used when youth become adults. [4] However, leadership among youth also plays an important role in the immediate lives of these young people. Leadership provides an opportunity for youth to experience the satisfaction of making a difference. It is a process through which they can develop strong, supportive relationships, and develop self-esteem, confidence, and other social skills. [4] Youth is an pivotal time for leadership development, as it provides a framework in which leadership skills and abilities naturally develop gradually and progressively.[6] During adolescence, youth are naturally seeking out self-discovery and identity. Therefore, through the application of effective, targeted youth leadership programs, this process can be applied and further developed to have great impacts on the lives of youth and their communities

Youth Leadership Development

When aiming to foster youth leadership, you should consider 3 key elements: [5]

  1. Skills Development

  2. Environmental Factors

  3. Commitment to Action

1) Skills Development:

Offering skills development opportunities for youth reinforces the concept that leaders are not born, but can be made. [5] This is an effective perspective to adopt because it engages individuals who may otherwise avoid participation due to their belief that they "can't" lead simply because they haven't before or because they don't believe they are a "born leader." Redmond and Dolan (2014) outline 4 main areas of skill development:

  1. Social and Emotional Intelligence: confidence, interpersonal relationships

  2. Collaboration: team building, problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution

  3. Articulation: oral and written communication, presentation skills

  4. Insight and Knowledge: critical thinking, ethics, knowledge of facts and relevant subject matter

2) Environmental Factors:

A critical component to youth leadership development is participation in authentic opportunities. [5] Authentic opportunities are those in which youth have a significant degree of ownership over their endeavors. This fosters a sense of responsibility in youth and through practice develops competence, reliability and confidence. Furthermore, real opportunities for leadership allow youth to help shape the development of their community. [1] A key aid and environmental factor in the success of the aforementioned authentic opportunities are mentorship relationships between youth and adults. Adult mentorship does not imply that youth lose decision making authority, but rather is the provision of guidance and expertise that aid youth in their creativity and exploration of ideas. [1]

3) Action:

The final component of youth leadership development is the coordination of opportunity and learned skills into action: the demonstration of leadership. The ability to motivate others is necessary for a leader to action and attain their goals, and requires from the leader passionate commitment and demonstration of the goal's value. [5] Interwoven into the concept of motivation is the inspiration of others. Through inspiration a leader encourages the pursuit of a shared vision among those involved. [5] Persistence and determination are also key to the action stage, as the mastery of leadership requires you to overcome the many challenges inherent to achieving a worthwhile goal. Reflection plays a part in mastery as it enables you to evaluate your past actions and strategies, and act in accordance with what you have learned. [5]

In summary, youth leadership is primarily developed through experiential learning in which youth learn and apply leadership skills. [5] Impact and consequence are important components of youth leadership experiences: youth need to be engaged in real projects that facilitate a sense of purpose.[5] The application of these ideas within youth leadership programs requires a deviation from the "deficit model" of youth leadership, in which youth are viewed as lacking and in need of development of the skills required to demonstrate leadership.[3] Rather, youth leadership programs can view youth as leaders in today's society, and focus on their impact in the wider community. It is when youth's learned skills are applied in an enabling environment that they can have their greatest impact.


[7]-[1] Camino, L., & Zeldin, S. (2002). From periphery to center: Pathways for youth civic

engagement in the day-to-day life of communities. Applied Developmental Science,

6(4), 213-220. doi:10.1207/S1532480XADS0604_8

[6]-[2] Conner, J. O., & Strobel, K. (2007). Leadership Development: An Examination of

Individual and Programmatic Growth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22(3), 275–


[5]-[3] Kahn, L., Hewes, S., & Ali, R. Taking the lead. Retrieved from


[2]-[4] MacNeil, C. A. (2006). Bridging generations: Applying “adult” leadership theories to

youth leadership development. New Directions for Youth Development, 2006(109),

27-43. doi:10.1002/yd.153

[1]-[5] Redmond, S., & Dolan, P. (2016). Towards a conceptual model of youth leadership

development. Child & Family Social Work, 21(3), 261-271. doi:10.1111/cfs.12146

[4]-[6] Ricketts, J. C., & Rudd, R. D. (2002). A comprehensive leadership education model to

train, teach, and develop leadership in youth. Journal of Career and Technical

Education, 19(1), 7-17.


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