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The topic of role models and aspirational leaders for young people is one which often comes up when thinking about who or what they might be in the future. Today’s young people are surrounded by messaging and content from a huge number of influencers, who, whether we believe in their ideas or not, are essentially leaders.
When we stop to think of who our leaders in society may be, our immediate thoughts turn to our political decision makers – our Prime Minister, leader of the opposition etc – but how much do these leaders really affect and influence young people? Of course, the decisions they make certainly affect the way we all live our lives and the money in our pockets, but are today’s teenagers and their thoughts on the world influenced by Westminster politicians?
Undoubtedly so; our politicians have received unrivalled airtime in the last few years.
But this is a time of confused leadership at the top. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that young people are perhaps unsure of who to look up to and who to take their guidance from beyond their traditional reference points such as family, friends and school teachers.
Heading into an uncertain future, positive leaders and role models for young people are more important than ever, particularly as they
Searching for a true definition of a good leader throws up a huge number of different options (roughly 934 million, according to Google). But some words or phrases coming up repeatedly: inspirational, team building, influential, motivating and communication, to name a few.
Does this mean that anyone showing these characteristics is instantly a good leader? And is the reverse true, that being perceived to be weaker in these areas discounts a leader from being effective?
To add an extra layer of complexity to an already confusing area, being strong and effective in all the areas associated with good leadership might not necessarily mean that leader is inherently ‘good’. Using these attributes in a way that influences people negatively – or even dangerously – can be more harmful than poor leadership. Being good at leading people doesn’t necessarily define a good leader.
While having a vision and motivating others to join you on that journey might normally be perceived as good leadership, what happens when those following are encouraged or even indoctrinated into perpetuating a belief or a series of views that might actually be damaging to their community or society?
Young people may be vulnerable to such negative influence. In looking for solutions and guidance to their biggest perceived challenges and risks in the future, they may be at high risk of effectively being radicalised by individuals promising a shortcut to a happier life a path to instant solutions. In their search for reassurance in these areas, they, like many of us, may be motivated to take guidance from sources which might not hold up to scrutiny but which might provide comfort or assurance in the short term.
At this point, the immediate thought might be to identify role models who demonstrate positive attributes.
However, maybe we should rather be asking young people to take a step back and think about what leadership actually means to them?
Identifying figures as good or bad leaders, or positive and negative role models, may be too simplistic with no space for nuance, only serving to further divide us and create binary positions. There might be elements of one person’s style that we recognise as positive, but others might see as negative – and situations where a different approach might be needed than that individual’s default method. In this sense, good leaders need to be adaptable.
Instead, are there ways in which we can encourage young people to take a more critical view of leadership itself? Rather than viewing things as either ‘good’ or ‘bad, can we instil in our learners the ability to review a situation and identify an approach or method which might encourage others to act positively?
The classic view of leadership might be of a single person directing others to carry out certain tasks or take particular actions – however, are there instead different dimensions to leadership that we can encourage young people to identify and apply to their own decisions and actions every day? Being a leader doesn’t just mean being in charge all the time – and leadership skills are not just for those people comfortable with that role.
Leaders don’t always need to lead from the front; they can be a driving force for change and positivity from a wide range of positions and standpoints. Leadership is about what you do and how you affect those around, not who you are or your perceived status.
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