"How to Build a Collaborative Youth Leadership Team"“Effective leadership is putting first things first,” insisted Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”

About 30 years ago, a group of teachers, youth ministers, coaches, and I wanted to empower teens in our states with collaborative leadership skills.  There were different models that provided teens with leadership training, but we lacked a model that equipped organizations with sustainable tools that allowed teens to use their leadership skills. 

I was on a mission to figure out how to empower adults with the tools they needed to encourage youth to be leaders without controlling or blocking their efforts.

Our leadership team hosted an annual leadership institute for teens.  We invited youth throughout the Midwest to learn leadership tools and practice the skills in small group settings.  Throughout the course of the week, teens learned how to:

Though I presented sessions on communication skills during the week-long training, my primary role was to be a mentor to a small group of teens.  The youth teams used collaborative skills of planning and consensus to make decisions to complete leadership projects.

The roles of the small group mentors were less well-defined.  We were instructed not to interfere with youth team planning.  We were to be encouraging chaperones.  Whenever I chimed in to ask a question during the teens’ discussions, they snapped, “It’s our role to do the planning.”

And they were right.  Their role was to plan.  My role as an adult mentor?  I wasn’t so sure.

If adults do not have clearly defined roles when working with youth leadership teams, they will define the roles for themselves.  Some adults become dictators; forcing their own agenda throughout the youth planning process.  Some adults are primarily concerned about being their friends; often causing more disruptive discipline problems than the kids.  It is not the fault of the adults when they try to control or entertain teens – it’s a program issue that lacks a clear role definition for participating adults.

One day, I figured out my role with the youth leadership team while they argued about a project decision.  Three of the teens shouted at one another as they defended their opinions about the direction of the project.  The others shut down and refused to participate in the discussion.

“Let’s go back to our group norms,” I said.  “What can we do to think win-win?”

“No disrespect intended, Julie, but you’re not supposed to tell us what to do,” interrupted Elizabeth.  “It’s our job to plan.”

They told us you’re not supposed to talk because you’re not a member of our group,” Andy added.

I decided it was time to add a rule of my own to the small group planning process.

“All of us in this room have very important roles on this leadership team,” I answered.  “Your role is to plan.”

“Yes!” they agreed.  “Our role is to plan.”

“I am a member of our leadership team, too, but my role is different,” I continued. “Your role is to plan. My role is to ensure we use the tools of teamwork and consensus and I will call you on it every time.”

The room got very quiet.  Then it exploded with new energy.

Their roles were clear.  My role was clear.  I wasn’t the dictator.  There was no need for me to withdraw from the planning.  I didn’t try to be their friend.  I was their adult mentor.  In this role, the teens felt comfortable focusing on planning.  They became more committed to their norms and agreements to use their communication tools.  They knew I would draw them back to the consensus planning process – not by interrupting their planning, but by asking questions that were firmly rooted in Sean Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens:

  • What can we do to be proactive?  How do we take responsibility for our actions?  How do we make choices based on principles and values?  How do we create an inside-out approach to change something and make it better?
  • How can we begin with the end in mind?  What is our vision?  What is our mission?  How are our goals aligned with our vision and mission?  Do we have a clear purpose?  How are we physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared to begin with the end in mind?
  • What must we do to put first things first?   Stephen Covey believed, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  What are our most important priorities?  What must we do to organize and execute our plans? What tasks must we complete to reach our goals?
  • In what ways can we think win-win?   How can we change our thoughts and behaviors in ways that reflect mutual respect for one another?  How can we resolve conflict in ways that allow everyone to feel heard and part of the solution?  How will we come to consensus? 
  • How do we seek first to understand, then to be understood?   How can we be better listeners?  What must we do to focus on what is being said (rather than planning our next response)?  What questions should we ask to understand one another more fully?  How can we respond with kindness when we don’t agree with someone else’s opinion?
  • How can we synergize?  When we work to come to consensus, we try to find a solution that benefits everyone. How can we recognize each other’s individual strengths?  What can we do to strengthen cooperation and teamwork?  How can we find creative solutions as a team?
  • What must we do to sharpen our saws?   Do we remember to take care of ourselves?  Do we care for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health?  Do we celebrate our successes as a team?  Do we make time to have fun?

Many of the teens on my first peer leadership team did not recognize their leadership potential.  Unlike many high school councils and honors, the teens did not vote on members to represent them on our team.  I identified peer leaders who possessed unique leadership skills and had influence across diverse groups.  They were grateful I recognized their leadership potential.

Elizabeth understood how to rally a team into action.  Terrill was a wonderful listener.  James had an innate ability to sum up important highlights of a conversation.  Katie kept us on task.  Andy was a tremendous small group facilitator.  Tatiana was an excellent recorder and possessed fantastic organizational skills.  Our leadership team needed the gifts of every member to be a strong collective whole.

In the years that followed, the teens acknowledged and celebrated leadership gifts in one another.  They created projects and committees that invited all teens in our community to share their individual leadership gifts.  They became members of the youth leadership training team.  Our leadership training processes became a model many schools, churches, and community organizations wanted to emulate.

It is exciting when teens empowered with leadership skills are invited to represent their peers on church, school, and community leadership teams with adults.  However, young leaders expect adults to lead by example.  The teens serving on adult committees often asked me, “How come we have to follow the rules of consensus and collaboration and the adults don’t have to?”

“Because you have leadership skills and training,” I answered.  “Go and be role models.”

Collaborative leadership, at its best, empowers all participants to use their personal gifts in ways that benefit the entire group.  A collaborative leader asks insightful questions, listens, and invites members of the group to be part of mutual decisions.  A collaborative leader is a torch with a vision who lights the way for others.

“A leader is someone who has insight or unique skills that allow him to guide others to reach a collec"How to Build a Collaborative Teen Leadership Team"tive goal,” explains Samhita Roy, a high school graduate from Princeton, New Jersey. “Leading is not managing, supervising, or an objective.  Rather, it’s the demonstration of qualities that allow leaders to bring clarity and insight, which open new approaches for the group to follow.”

When we demonstrate respect for our youth through our words, actions, and leadership skills; when we provide training and mentoring; when we invite them into full involvement within our communities, they will come – and they will eagerly participate.  And they will bring their friends.  Their friends will bring their parents and curious adults.  That’s how organizations grow. 

That’s how youth leaders become community leaders, national heroes, and role models.

P.S.  Elizabeth is now Director of Youth & Adult Formation at a church.  Andy is a special education teacher.  Terrill is a mental health therapist.  Tatiana is a school district professional development director.  Now they’re preparing the next generation of youth leaders.  

How can you inspire leadership in others?

Try these 10 Tips to Mentor Like a Superstar if you want to build a relationship with a teen who needs you.

These suggestions explain What You Must Do to Invite & Involve Youth (So They Want to Stay) in your organization.

Learn How to Be a Good Role Model with these tips.

Discover Why We Must Talk to Young People about Their Dreams.

Use these suggestions explore What’s Your Dream? and create a strong vision, mission, and goals.

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