What Does Youth Leadership Look Like?
Everybody knows about qualities of a great leader: confidence, integrity, commitment, strength, wisdom, courage. We recognize them when we see them. These are the people who win elections or are the presidents of companies. They receive awards, are successful athletes, or maybe even “everyday” heroes. We listen to these leaders. We strive to model their behaviors. So when it comes to teaching our children, how do we show them from a young age how to become just like those leaders we admire?
4-H Youth Development Programs create opportunities for children of all ages to learn life skills that will help them to grow into successful adults. Additionally, 4-H builds a sense of safety and belonging for youth, so they feel comfortable enough to express themselves and stretch their “leadership wings”. Within a community club, for example, there are officer positions, mentor opportunities, event planning options, demonstrations, and many other ways a youth can show their progress towards confident, formal leadership. Typically, these officer roles are held by intermediate or senior 4-H members. But for younger children, what does “leadership” look like?
For youth who are “Cloverbud” age (5-7) or Juniors (8-10), becoming a club president may not be developmentally appropriate (See Ages and Stages of Youth Development). They may not yet have the maturity to “lead” in the way older youth do. But there are many age-appropriate ways that younger children can express their “Inner Chief”.
Opportunities for Young Leaders
With a deep tradition in agriculture, 4-H offers opportunities for youth to exhibit livestock and other animals throughout Florida. An exhibitor is called upon to enter a show ring with confidence. Demonstrating physical condition, handling, positioning, and other “showmanship” categories takes center stage. As a judge evaluates the 4-H animal exhibitor, a child may answer questions, maintain eye contact, and even be called to perform an unfamiliar task on the spot. Each mode of communication conveys leadership qualities the judge will evaluate in her search for “Best in Show”.
For other 4-H youth, this type of formal competition may not be available. Instead, we can find “real life” situations which allow youth to demonstrate their early leadership skills. Consider these options:
- Older children supervise younger siblings. Besides helping parents or family, they practice responsibility for someone other than themselves.
- Babysitting. An extension of overseeing family members, this activity shows leadership skills and earns a wage at the same time!
- Doing chores – without being asked. Youth who perform their household jobs without constant reminders shows they understand self-management.
- Lending a hand. Whether it be helping a neighbor, picking up trash, or just doing someone a favor, there are small ways youth can demonstrate teamwork.
Speaking up for others. When children advocate for one another, they reinforce communication skills, empathy, and conflict resolution.
How To Build True Leaders
As most children are perfect mimics, they model what they see in those closest to them. Adult volunteers in 4-H can teach many leadership traits without even trying! Some ways to show youth foundations of leadership include:
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Communication is key to every aspect of life and work.
- Accept differences. As our societies become more diverse, understanding and accepting difference allows youth to relate to others from many backgrounds.
- Listen. A careful leader takes the time to listen to the thoughts of others around them.
- Embrace resilience and change. Nothing ever stays the same. Skills children learn to deal with changes gives them flexibility needed in adulthood.
- Admit mistakes. An important aspect of leadership is admitting when you are wrong.
- Attitude of “Grit“: The only way we will fail is if we give up.
While cultivating “Little Leaders” in 4-H youth programming, the small things count. Intentionally providing younger kids opportunities to build a leadership foundation is how 4-H can “Make the Best Better” to lead in tomorrow’s world.