George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

Developing Student Leadership

Schools can use experiential learning as an opportunity to let all students develop their leadership skills.

April 11, 2024
SeventyFour / iStock

Teaching leadership can be tricky. At the secondary school level, most student leadership “development” programs are in fact only education (academic theory) or training (practical application). Rarely do high schools have the resources to effectively combine the two into true experiential learning. 

Leadership education occurs in the classroom: It is the history, theory, concepts, models, and modern behavioral sciences which build the foundation for effective leadership. Leadership training is the practical application of leadership education. It gives students the opportunity to apply theoretical concepts or styles from the classroom to real and immediate situations, both formal or informal, structured and unstructured. Leadership development is the combination of the two: the overall process of learning, doing, reflecting, and actively experimenting with leadership styles, all of which can prepare students for leadership roles with increasing levels of responsibility.  

Creating Leadership Development Opportunities 

The challenge is how to effectively combine foundational leadership theories, principles, and knowledge with dynamic opportunities in which students can safely and confidently succeed, fail, and, most important, experiment with a variety of leadership styles.

One way is to augment existing programs and opportunities in which students hold leadership roles with more formalized leadership education. For example, how often are sports captains taught the basics of public speaking to strengthen their pre- and postgame speeches? How often are club presidents taught the basics of planning and leading a meeting, delegating tasks, and supervising implementation of group plans? When are elected student government representatives taught the importance of active listening, empathy, and servant leadership? Or, in the classroom, how are the leaders of group projects taught the essentials of building a timeline, back-planning, or giving and receiving constructive feedback to peers?

We can provide student leaders with the most relevant tools to succeed. In this way, not only are students developing expertise in what they are leading (the sport, the content of the club or activity, the group project skill set, etc.), but now they are also developing knowledge and confidence in how they are leading it.  

A 4-Step Leadership Development Process

1. Identify Existing Programs and Opportunities: What student leadership opportunities exist at your school? Consider the full spectrum of both curricular and extracurricular programming: athletics, theater and clubs, peer mentorship programs, outdoor education and community service, and even small group projects within the classroom. Boarding schools may also have house systems that empower students to serve as leaders within their dorms. There are likely a plethora of existing programs and opportunities in which students hold leadership positions.  

2. Create Additional Opportunities: The best way to develop student leaders is to give them recurring opportunities to lead. What curricular and extracurricular opportunities at your school could be more student-led? Community service outings can be decentralized into student-led teams. Project-based learning activities can have assigned, rotating student group leaders. Field trips and outdoor education can incorporate student co-leaders. And all-school events on campus can incorporate student leaders into the planning process. Regardless of the role, make sure these leaders have clear guidance, training, resources, and structure for their specific roles and responsibilities.

3. Clarify Core Leadership Skills: Once these opportunities are identified or created, consider the core leadership skills and roles required for each position. For example, some leadership positions (such as club presidents) require advanced organizational and management skills, whereas others (such as student government) require public speaking and interpersonal skills such as active listening and empathy. 

Some roles require a hierarchical management structure, whereas others focus on collaboration and shared leadership models. For example, when selecting and preparing our outdoor student leaders for outdoor education trips, we develop checklists with pre- and post-trip administrative and logistical tasks in addition to the desired character strengths and expeditionary behavior we want them to role-model in their trail groups. Identifying these roles and the respective strengths required to succeed can allow mentors and facilitators to bucket their curriculum accordingly.

4. Incorporate Experiential Learning Models: Lastly, students must have the opportunity to “learn, do, reflect, and act” repeatedly during their leadership tenure. Once mentors introduce a new leadership skill or style, student leaders can experiment with it in their own roles. Recurring check-ins can allow them to reflect on the experience and draw out lessons learned, allowing student leaders to then act on those lessons in future encounters with their respective teams. 

Ideally, this experiential learning cycle should be repeated as often as possible while students hold their leadership positions. Time and resources permitting, student leaders from across the spectrum of curricular and extracurricular activities could meet to discuss their respective leadership strengths and challenges, such as in a monthly leadership roundtable format. Our associate head of school for leadership, for example, collects feedback from the professional community on student leader performance to inform her recurring check-ins with the student leaders under her supervision.  

empowering culturally competent leaders

We often assume that effective leadership is a one-size-fits-all approach or a specific combination of personality traits that, when identified and adopted, will naturally produce effective leaders. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As stated in The Bass Handbook of Leadership, a timeless guide for student leadership development, “A person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits, but the pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics, activities, and goals of the followers.”

Furthermore, students today are entering a culturally diverse, 21st-century globalized economy, which will ensure that these desired personal characteristics will shift from setting to setting and place to place depending on the backgrounds of those being led. Our job is to make sure they are ready.

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  • Communication Skills
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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