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Teaching Leadership to Students

I had a great conversation with a Next Gen Educator this week. It happened right after one of our robotic programs and she approached me with a question – how to handle an overenergetic/attention-seeking student? The conversation went many ways, it was fairly long and, after reflecting on it at home, I realized that everything I said pointed to one specific skill set (for educator and student alike): leadership. Leadership became a bit of a topic for the next few days and it inspired me to write this article.

Let’s start with the basics. Leadership (Google definition - the action of leading a group of people or an organization) is a valuable skill that can help students achieve their academic and career goals. We all know that. But how can educators teach leadership skills to their students? Do we even formally teach that in the classroom or do we leave our students to fend for themselves when it comes to it?

As a person who had hands-on experience in leadership, I truly believe that we are teaching it wrong to all ages, formally or not. Many lectures/courses/classes I had seem, focus on styles, how to lead, how to handle people, speeches, companies, etc. They are a tool for a purpose, but they do not touch what I believe to be the basics of leadership, which are self-knowledge and knowing others. But before we get there, I want to focus on…

Why teaching leadership is important

Leadership skills are the abilities that enable a person to influence, motivate and guide others toward a common vision or goal. Again, great as a tool for a purpose, but still lacks a bit of the “early stages of leadership”. However, these leadership skills can help students to:

  • Develop confidence and self-esteem

  • Work effectively in teams and collaborate with diverse peers

  • Communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively

  • Solve problems creatively and critically

  • Take initiative and responsibility for their actions

  • Adapt to changing situations and challenges

  • Learn from feedback and mistakes

  • Inspire others to follow their example

It does not matter which example you pick from the list – I truly think they are tools or skills that work effectively when you are leading. But they are ahead of what I believe to be the basis of leadership. Some examples… I taught a student who had great confidence and self-esteem… but unfortunately, he was also very selfish and egocentric. I had students with great communication skills… but lack flexibility or empathy. I have met people who are great inspirations… that never really followed one piece of advice they were giving to people (coaching much?). All that to say that you can be a terrible leader but have good leadership skills because you are following a recipe, using skills that are important but are not backed up by the “basis of leadership”. Without further delay, I present you…

The basis of leadership and what we should be teaching

Teaching leadership skills to students is not a one-size-fits-all approach (duh!). Different students may have different learning styles, preferences and strengths when it comes to leadership. However, some general principles and methods that can help educators teach leadership skills to students are:

  • Make students know themselves: One cannot lead if one does not understand oneself properly. Our emotions are what motivate us to do things in our lives. Who here never had to endure a fit from a manager who was not in full control/understanding his/her emotions properly? Most of us are like that, we feel, and we react. Only a few really take the time to look inwards to understand what is causing emotions, fears, happiness and all; let alone modulate/harness/control them. We consider these so intuitive that we do not peel the layers to understand how complex emotions can be and what they can do to us and our lives. Once you have a better grip on understanding your emotions, you can…

  • Understanding others: If you have mastery over your emotions, you can notice these emotions in others and infer their causes. After all, you have been to a similar situation, thus you can relate and help. Understanding your own emotions/motivations allows you to connect with others on a deeper level in a much faster way. After all, you “know the feeling” so why not use that feeling to help/connect/assist others? Once you master step 2, you have to…

  • Be flexible/plastic: If you learned about yourself and others, chances are, you have been exposed to/learned too many social situations. That means you are equipped with behavioural tools to handle whatever the world throws at you. But it is also good to learn the “HOW” you should use these tools. The teaching trick is to help students adapt to changing situations and challenges. Teach them how to cope with stress, uncertainty and ambiguity. Teach them how to think creatively and critically, generate alternative solutions, evaluate risks and benefits and make informed decisions. Teach them how to learn from feedback and mistakes, and embrace failure as an opportunity for growth and improvement. But all IN A REAL-WORLD SITUATION and REAL LIFE EXAMPLES. Teaching theoretical stuff does not count – students will not be able to relate. Bring real-life examples, ask students to share situations that are going through and discuss them together, bring everyone’s opinion together and make their plan for possible outcomes. I have done that plenty of times and students loved it and it was very enlightening to everyone (myself included).

How to properly set up students for success by teaching in real-life situations

One of the best ways to teach leadership skills to students is by exposing them to real-life situations, in a safe and controlled manner, that requires them to apply their learning in authentic contexts. Some examples of real-life situations that can teach leadership skills to students are:

  • Simulations: Use games, role plays, scenarios or case studies that simulate real-world problems or situations that require leadership skills. For example, you can use a complex emotional situation you are going through, or classic problems students will be facing that requires students to work in teams, make decisions, communicate effectively and solve problems.

  • Projects: Use project-based learning or inquiry-based learning that involves students in designing, implementing and presenting a project that addresses a real-world problem or question that requires leadership skills. For example, you can use a project that involves creating a product, service or campaign that meets a community need or demand.

  • Mentoring: Use mentoring programs that pair students with mentors who have experienced leaders in their fields or professions. Or just people who are good at understanding emotions and have a lot of experience in social situations. Mentors can provide guidance, advice, feedback and support to students as they develop their leadership skills.

  • Service: Use service-learning or volunteer opportunities that involve students in contributing to a social cause or community issue that requires leadership skills. For example, you can use a service-learning project that involves organizing a fundraiser, awareness campaign or event.

And there you go! Although one of the longest articles so far, I hope it gives you a bit of enlightening on how Nik Zetouni from Next Gen thinks leadership should be taught. The nutshell version is… teach students the basis of leadership which I believe to be knowing oneself and then knowing others. Then expose oneself to the real world where the skills acquired will be tested and provide a good support group to have insights and perspectives on any given situation.

Let’s empower the leaders of tomorrow :D

Nik Zetouni

Next Gen’s CEO

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