What do former Senator and Governor Bob Graham, Senator Bill Nelson, Former U.S. Congressman and Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, and Florida House Representative Jennifer Sullivan all have in common? You guessed it – they were all members of 4-H as youth. The 4-H program has a proud history of preparing youth for leadership roles and continues to provide opportunities for leadership experiences that are second to none.
The 4-H Leadership Model
Learning to be a leader starts with the very first project a 4-H youth member completes. These projects are the vehicle through which members learn to set goals, take ownership for developing skills, document their progress and share their knowledge and skills with others. Sharing may take the form of mentoring younger members, leading a workshop, presenting a speech, or creating an exhibit. Project work not only imparts knowledge and skills, but also engages participants in a multitude of opportunities to develop life skills like responsibility, work ethic and of course – leadership.
Opportunities for leadership development should be intentional and early. Even the youngest members can be assigned a job and present a club-level demonstration. Intentionality is the key because it is often easier for a club volunteer to complete a task themselves than to have a child do it, however this is how youth develop the confidence to take on bigger challenges. In smaller clubs, Junior and Intermediate members may hold elected club offices or may serve in rotating responsibility roles in larger clubs. Senior 4-H members should all be serving as officers and committee chairs and be guiding the younger members during the course of a meeting.
Going Beyond the County 4-H Experience
Engaging teen youth at the county, district and state levels has always been a challenge, but when we do it yields amazing results in terms of leadership development. Essentially every 4-H program has a county council that seats club delegates, and that council supports delegates to the district council. Club leaders and parents must see the value of these experiences in order to make sure every 4-H member has the opportunity to grow as a leader. Children rarely want to stretch beyond their comfort zones, but it is up to adults to provide that “push” to help them grow.
When youth participate in leadership events at the state level there is a clear and transformational effect. With rare exception, participants return home excited and share their enthusiasm with fellow 4-Hers. The experiences provided through events like 4-H University and 4-H Legislature open youth to real-world engagement. The 4-H leadership model supports adult-youth partnership and empowerment rather than following predominantly adult-directed programming. The participants understand that they are responsible for their own success and that is when truly life changing growth results.
Most 4-H members will not pursue a career in their chosen 4-H project, but each and every one has the opportunity to develop leadership skills that will impact them for a lifetime.