Youth in leadership roles

Youth leadership roles give youth the opportunity to be in leadership positions and develop skills.

Capitol Experience youth facilitator and participant
2018 Capitol Experience youth facilitator and participant. Photo by Michigan State University Extension.

Youth leadership opportunities are often overlooked by adults, either knowingly or unknowingly, but the results are the same; a lost opportunity for young people to take the lead. Even when adults consider themselves champions for youth in leadership roles, many times adults are asked to assume the leadership positions instead of letting youth take the lead.

As part of the leadership and civic engagement team at Michigan State University Extension, I work with adults to teach them how to prepare youth for those roles. We also help adults understand how they can be a background advisor, allowing young people to practice their leadership skills. My instruction aims to teach adults that young people are capable of leadership roles and 4-H is the ideal place for them to try out their skills. 4-H club meetings, county wide advisory groups and statewide youth leaders’ councils provide safe environments for youth to take the positive risk of leadership.

My most recent “crime” was that I let an advisory group elect all adult officers without even asking youth if they’d like the opportunity to run for an office. The idea didn't cross my mind until after the election and the meeting was adjourning. Two young people were sitting together obviously disengaged in the meeting events; sitting facing each other discussing school. I wondered why the pair were not a part of the meeting and did not seem to be taking the extremely important proceedings about what to serve at the chicken fundraiser – corn or beans – seriously. I asked the young people, “Would you have run for an office?” My heart dropped as I heard the response, “We didn’t know we could.” I felt instant failure.

I am supposed to be the expert, so why is it I found myself in the situation of asking youth after the meeting if they would have liked to hold an office for a countywide advisory group? Research shows youth learn through hands-on experience and I have witnessed this many times while working for over 30 years in the youth development field. Even with all of my background information, I fell into the trap of subconsciously assuming adults are better leaders and that it is easier to have adults in leadership roles. I know better. I’ve seen firsthand many young people who are more energetic, possess fresher ideas and are role models for peers to look up to make excellent leaders. These youth bring positive outcomes to groups. I’m not throwing their adult counterparts under the bus, however I admit I would much rather work with youth many times more than adults.

The important lesson for adults is to never give up in providing leadership opportunities for young people. You should continually check the progress of groups implementing opportunity and space for young people to take on leadership roles. Check in with groups to make sure young people are engaged in the group’s goals and feel like an active part of the group. The 4-H “learn by doing” philosophy is especially important when learning about leadership.

Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles steer the program that includes over 200,000 young people. Three of the principles speak directly to involving youth in leadership positions.

  1. Youth develop positive relationships with adults and peers.
  2. Youth are physically and emotionally safe.
  3. Youth are actively engaged in their own development.
  4. Youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.
  5. Youth develop skills that help them succeed. 
  6. Youth recognize, understand and appreciate multiculturalism.
  7. Youth grow and contribute as active citizens through service and leadership.

Through 4-H programs, MSU Extension is “helping to develop tomorrow’s engaged agents of positive change by providing youth with the knowledge and skills to become leaders in today’s multicultural world along with a commitment to civic service and responsibility. Through experiences and trainings that teach youth how to run a meeting, deal with conflict, understand and influence public policy processes, work collaboratively with people of various leadership styles and personalities, MSU Extension 4-H is building current and future leaders who contribute to Michigan at state, county and local levels.”

MSU Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program has evaluated many leadership programs and found that the learn-by-doing philosophy is not only important in project-based programs, the philosophy holds true for life skills such as leadership. Providing leadership opportunities is essential for youth to hone the skills that will carry them into adulthood. Youth educators need to continually check their progress in providing these opportunities to young people.

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