Whether you have worked with students for 5 years or 25 years, you have seen a steady decline in the willingness of students to step up and become leaders. Students fear leadership, much like they fear speaking in public.
First, let’s make this clear. You have not seen a decline in the ability of students to lead. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. Students who volunteer for leadership positions are more passionate, driven, and goal-oriented than ever before. They truly want to make things happen, to be agents of change.
Students fear leadership for a variety of reasons. They know that they will face criticism and possible failure; and they lack the self-confidence necessary to be successful. There’s nothing new about these fears. What’s new is the increasing commonality of these fears among students.
Three Reasons Students Fear Leadership:
- Instant criticism: You might remember your grandmother or your mother telling you, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, those days are gone. Students live in an world of instant feedback, where everyone has an opinion and feels free to share it on social media immediately. Those opinions are so often negative, and social shaming has become commonplace.
Solution: Teach students that opinions are like noses. Everyone has one and often they are running with green snot that no one wants anything to do with. Teach them to avoid and ignore useless commentary. Teach them to instead seek out positive evaluation of their choices and leadership styles. Evaluation provides positive feedback that will help them grow as leaders.
- Lack of experience: Adults are a significant part of the problem. We have taken the opportunities for leadership away from students. We would rather do it ourselves than guide students through the process of learning what it takes to accomplish a leadership task or goal. We fear failure for our own children and the students are responsible for. We want to protect them from feeling like a failure. We’ve focused so much on building our students’ self-esteem, that we have forgotten the value of grit and resilience. All of this creates a lack of confidence within our students.
Solution: Get out of the way and let your students do the work of a leader. Put your student in situations where success is the goal. Set them up to succeed. Give them real opportunities to take charge of projects and events, as well as the choices that go with them. Allow them to gain firsthand leadership experience. As teachers, we know the best way to learn something is to teach it. Let your student’s share their expertise with other students and their confidence will soar.
I’m not a fan of letting students fail for the sake of failure. I don’t abide by the old saying, “You learn more from your failures than your successes.” Give me success over failure every time. You only learn from your failure if you take the time and effort to evaluate what went wrong, which is rarely carried through.
- Misunderstanding of what leadership really is: Leadership experts overcomplicate leadership. As a leadership trainer myself, I see this happen all the time. We scared students with a slew of complicated messages on what it means to be a leader and what it takes to lead others. We have to bring leadership back to the basics.
Solution: Define leadership for your students. Leadership is the art and science of influencing others to accomplish a mission, task, or goal. To put it even more simply, leadership is about getting others to get stuff done. That’s not so scary, is it?
Let your students know that you are going to be right there with them the entire time. However, you are not going to tell them what to do each step of the way. Give them the opportunities to make mistakes and then evaluate those errors so they are not repeated. This will allow students to gain experience without having to fail.
Finally, make sure you are teaching your students the most basic element of what it takes to be a leader. It takes personal character.
If you’d like to know more about helping students learn the basics of leadership, see my newest book, “B.A.S.I.C. The Student Leadership Field Manual.”