Developing Young Leaders: Great Potential, Significant Gaps

For years, CCL has been hearing from our program participants about how they would love to have benefited from a leadership development experience earlier in their lives. Right now, the next generation of leaders is already in the workforce, and the challenges they will face going forward are immense. Do they have what is needed for success?  Have they been able to develop the competencies organizations need?  Are they getting the development experiences to prepare them to lead?

Recently we polled our Leadership Insights panel on these questions, asking (among other things) what excited them most about young people in the workforce today and what concerned them most.  It turns out what excites them most about young people is their:  (1) comfort and skill with technology  (2) creativity and fresh ideas, (3) global awareness and tolerance, and (4) adaptability.  At the same time, among the concerns voiced were: (1) the sense of entitlement/lack of work ethic young people seem to have, (2) their lack of ability to communicate face-to-face (3) a lack of decision-making skills, and (4) their lack of learning opportunities, such as mentoring, positive role models, and training.

Based on the above, it can be argued that young people in the workforce today are better prepared to lead than were current leaders when they first started out.  Certainly the future of leadership is a future in which technology will play a huge role, in which we will need all the creativity and fresh ideas we can find, and where tolerance of difference and adaptability are basic to leading effectively.  And certainly a group of people with these valuable skills and perspectives coming into the workforce will be eager to make significant contributions sooner, rather than later.  To be sure, young people lack important leadership capacities, as well as the self-awareness that comes with maturity and feedback. However, many respondents voiced concern that these same future leaders are not getting the mentoring and training they need to improve leadership capacities, nor do they have a sufficient number of positive role models from whom to learn about ethics, good judgment, or authentic leadership.  This certainly needs to change.  Most who responded to our survey took the view that leadership development should begin in middle or high school and should be offered as part of a child’s regular education.  But that is not happening in most schools for a whole variety of reasons.

What ideas do you have about how to do a better job of developing young leaders?  What challenges do we face and how might we overcome those?  I welcome your comments!

To read more, see:

17 thoughts on “Developing Young Leaders: Great Potential, Significant Gaps

    1. Thanks for your reply and for posting that link. It is a very interesting article and I agree with many of the points she makes. You might also check out CCL’s work on Boundary Spanning Leadership – link to white paper here: This paper makes a related point – that boundaries need to first be strengthened, clarified and understood before they can be effectively spanned.

  1. Ellen:

    As I was reading the White Paper on Expanding the Leadership Equation, I remembered something that is taking place in the Mukilteo School District in Everett, Washington where I last worked. Several schools, following the successess of Mukilteo Elementary School, are using Covey’s “Leader In Me” program. I say young leaders in Mukilteo Elementary School exhibiting leadership traits that even many of the adults I supervised couldn’t comprehend. During a celebration with many Covey reprresentatives present, the students were leading the entire program, eloquently speaking throughout. I saw students in classrooms leading others to higher levels of leadership through their own caring and helpfulness. One fifth grade teacher taught leadership from Jackie Robinson and Sir Ernest Shakelton (one of my favorite examples of superior Servant Leadership). It was absolutely inspirational. cites the following about Mukilteo Elementary:

    “We begin by teaching our students about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey and developing and nurturing leadership skills in all students. We are a Leader in Me School, incorporating the 7 habits into everything we do. This serves as the foundation upon which our learning environment is built.”

    The Principal who started this in Mukilteo Elementary is now consulting with other schools on the Program.

    I believe that teaching leadership can begin in the elementary years. Adults — parents, teachers, ministers, school employees, other students — can mentor leadership to young people that will improve their character and enhance a lasting value system that goes well beyond simply leadership.

    One major challenge in teaching leadership to young people is that what they learn during the teaching and mentoring process in school is not always positively enforced at home and in their social circles; especially given the huge impace of social media on their lives. I found this as a teacher in high school especially and working with Middle School teachers and Principals at Mukilteo School District. I currently follow several of my former students on Facebook and see behaviors and language that when they were my students would have never been used in a public forum. It is depressing at times. However, I see a few who maintained and used the leadership in their current jobs that we taught them in our classes, which is very intrinsicly rewarding.

    Keep the Quest Alive.


    1. David,

      Thanks so much for mentioning the Covey program for children. Some of my colleagues have used that and I have recently become aware of it. It does seem like a wonderful program and the information you provided adds to that conclusion.

      I also agree with your frustrations and have felt those myself. Regardless of the age of people in a program, lack of reinforcement in back home environments is certainly an obstacle, whether those be work environments, home, or other social circles. With children it is especially important to provide opportunities for both support and practice of leadership behaviors, given they are usually not in positions of authority where leadership is called for directly. As you may know, this kind of widespread support for development is the basis of much of the work done by Search Institute (developmental assets) and the book “Other People’s Kids” by Peter Scales is one good example of their thinking on this topic.

  2. We still have to help the youngest people who have to start and get to start the work culture.

    Thank You All.


  3. We are only 10 to 20 people we all working.

    can we start a program for childrens in small villages. They can hardly learn. How can try to help us. We hardly have a pittance in with pricings.

    Thank you Once again.

  4. Ellen: thrilled to see discussion about teaching younger leaders. I wish I had my CCL experience earlier in my career and it is why I am glad I did that for my young officers with Clemson Turregano and Tom Gaffney’s assistance over the past year. What you find is they get it; they understand it; they are better leaders earlier because of the education. By exposing younger leaders to the training we pull them up to the level we want them to operate at; and it works! And it also builds an incredible amount of trust in your organization vertically – from the top where I sit to the youngest direct supervisor – that trust is irreplaceable and helps set the right tone within the organization.

    1. Kevin,

      I definitely agree, and thanks for commenting, especially as a CCL alum. So glad to see you keeping connected.

      We see similar impact in programs aimed at high school youth…..building a leader identity early on so that even the youth at high risk for dropping out of school begin to see themselves as leaders and see that continuing to develop those capabilities is a real option. That can make all the difference in future choices.

      Best regards, Ellen Van Velsor

  5. I’d like to comment as someone who actually IS a Millennial– a demographic that is apparently left out from writing pieces like these. I do not appreciate having these blanket stereotypes put upon us, nor do I think it’s appropriate to write articles like this. Imagine if you were writing about the perceived lack of certain skills of any other group in the workplace– women, Jews, African-Americans, gays– how do you think those articles would come off?

    Some PEOPLE are entitled. Some PEOPLE don’t know how to communicate face to face. Heck, the people I’ve done business with in my life so far that have the least idea about effective communication are all your age.

    But there I go, making blanket statements about an entire group of people.

    1. Matthew,

      I completely agree! I recently read an article about how Boomers are all self-centered hedonists and it reminded me how much I dislike blanket statements about generational or other groups. This article was never intended to be a statement about characteristics of a whole generation because, of course, there are people with similar skill gaps at any age level. Rather, the point is that young people are not getting what they need, at the present time, in terms of leadership development and young people are the leaders of the future. It is common for people already in management roles to get development opportunities at that point (and most of them happen to be older and currently GenX or Boomers, but that is really beside the point). It is much less common for these same opportunities to be offered to people when they are young, and that has probably been true for all generations. It was certainly true when I was in my twenties. Our advocacy in this paper is around getting people these opportunities at younger ages, so people are better prepared to lead effectively before they reach middle age. Also, we mentioned, and certainly believe that younger people can effectively mentor older people in the workforce and that more cross-generation, mutual mentoring would be a great way to offer a good development experience to whole groups of people on the job and at virtually no cost. I hope that clarifies our perspective. And thanks for posting!

  6. There are some truly great programs in existence that can be highly effective in developing some of these skills you mention- in students of all ages.

    Some interesting examples:

    In the school system:

    Using the outdoors to prepare for business and life:

    Using the wilderness to create excellent citizens:

    Also check out some of the work by Kurt Hahn and his philosophy on education. There are many educational outfits working to put his theories into practice, including all three listed above. A great quote of his: “I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion.”

    As for what challenges and how do we overcome them? Access, access, access. How do we find funding or create family support structures to help provide these opportunities to students? Can we make them more accessible through scholarships and supportive communities to existing programs or do we adapt curriculum and classrooms to bring the material to the students? There are people experimenting with these concepts and more. A lot of them are young members of the workforce and supported by other generations.

    I have been enjoying reading your articles and blog posts since I discovered CCL when they offered the LeaderMOOC. It has influenced and challenged my teaching and coaching in these skill areas. Thanks for the work you do!

  7. I agree. I taught school, both middle and elementary, for more than thirty years. I used literature as a means of engaging conversations with young minds about leadership- both good and bad. One of my favorite exercises was with 4th graders. We read Maniac Magee. I asked students to define a leader-great list evolved. Next I asked them to discuss and list what a good leader looks like compared with a bad one. Great conversation! Then the students grouped story characters into those groups. I believe that good literature and history “stories” can evoke the beginning conversations about leadership that young students need. They begin to identify those positive traits, and through discussions and activities, they begin to see and copy (children do this, why not read excellent literature so they pick oup on the best bits) those traits. It is easy then to ask students when something happens in class (a poor decision or poor leadership act on the part of a student) how a particular character in a story might have done it differently. It is something I am passionate about.

  8. Some great thoughts and ideas about developing leaders early on. What is missing, however, is a discussion on how internships in high school can develop those qualities and competencies business leaders want in their people. A well-crafted and well-managed internship will not only help develop a work ethic and discipline, effective communication and self awareness in the student but also give her the opportunity to have a mentoring/coaching relationship in the real world and develop those adult-to-adult interactions that are so important.

    And yes, leadership development should be for all students. And a good quality internship should be part of leadership development for all students before they graduate from high school.

  9. Leadership provides with the opportunity to lead. Especially it is important for High School students to enroll themselves in leadership programs, as it helps them to learn and lead. As the young leaders of tomorrow, you have the passion and energy and … a global vision .Students go thorough complete transformation by attending such programs. It develop many attributes to their personality like it helps them to gain confidence, development of communication skills, expansion of their network, getting management skills, development of problem solving skill, getting recognized, enhance resume and many more. Mr Chris Salamone formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. He functions as chairman of the Lead America Foundation and extends a considerable amount of financial support to fund the education of 300 children in Haiti.

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