Lightbulb Moment: The Importance of Fostering Young Leaders with Barry Posner

Mar 22, 2024

“You know, every time we write a book, everybody asks us what has changed,” author Barry Posner says, pondering the question as to whether any major surprises emerged while conducting research for the latest edition of The Student Leadership Challenge written with coauthor Jim Kouzes. “I think what continues to surprise us is that times change, circumstances change, the environment changes, but what people are doing when they're at their personal best, whether they're students or adults, is consistent.”

That consistency is remarkable and speaks to the validity and importance of the foundation of The Leadership Challenge® model: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. Regardless of what level of tumult the world is going through, organizations and educational institutions can leverage these behaviors in any context to nurture leaders and instill valuable skills, even starting at a very young age, to foster exemplary leadership in everyone.

In anticipation of the upcoming release of the fourth edition of The Student Leadership Challenge, Posner reflects on the versatility and impact of The Five Practices in the context of nurturing young leaders.

Cover of the book The Student Leadership Challenge and photo of author Barry Posner

“Leadership skills are not more important for young people than for their older counterparts. If we think about leadership as a skill, then like any other skill, the sooner you start working on it, the likelihood is that you are going to get better at it,” he says.

While the research on what leaders do when they are performing at their personal best may not have changed significantly, what has changed is the increased opportunity for emerging leaders. With the world in a state of rapid change, it is more important than ever that fundamental leadership skills be instilled early so young people are prepared to lead from wherever they are, regardless of their status or future title.

Exemplary Leadership Starts with Confidence

“One of the most important things an educator can do is develop their students’ confidence. Part of the issue, particularly for young people, is that they often lack the confidence to stand up and raise their hands. They are capable but don't do it because they don't have the confidence,” Posner says, highlighting the importance of building confidence through leadership development.

“I know that in all the classes that I teach, whether with teenagers or senior executives, my main objective is to help people believe they are leaders and that who they are is important and what they say is important and that they can make a difference. Because until you believe that you don't raise your hand, you don't step forward. Just developing people skills is insufficient, it’s about confidence,” he says.

Quote: “Before you can lead others, you need to lead yourself” Barry Posner Co-Author of The Student Leadership Challenge

When facilitating leadership development courses, whether it is The Leadership Challenge or The Student Leadership Challenge®, helping your leaders of any age connect with their own beliefs and strengthening their confidence is the first step on the path to exemplary leadership.

“Before you can lead others, you need to lead yourself. So, we want people to spend time thinking about what is important to them because they need to be able to know that for themselves before you can ask it of others,” Posner emphasizes.

The Universal Importance of Leadership Behavior at Any Age

While it is easy to focus on the disruption and rapid change since the events of 2020, Posner points out that every generation has had pivotal events that impact how they experience the world and how they behave in their families, organizations, and communities.

When reflecting on the question as to whether it is more important that young people today start gaining leadership skills earlier than in the past, Posner replies, “No, it's not more important. It's always been important. Every generation has wondered whether the younger generation will be up to the challenge. People will comment that the world is much more complex today. But if you took a slice of the world at different times, it has always been more complicated than it was the year before.”

Regardless, having the structure of a solution like The Student Leadership Challenge provides educational institutions the opportunity to instill these skills – from elementary to university levels – through the foundation of a proven and research-backed learning experience that can be customized to meet the needs, and ages, of your students.

Teaching Leadership Development – and That Lightbulb Moment

Speaking about the impact that educators can have when they teach these skills early, Posner speaks from the perspective of an educator himself.

“As an educator, you get a real chance to see the lightbulbs go on in people's heads. You can see their eyes light up. When you get a chance to be involved early enough in someone's development you can see that, and you can also imagine their trajectory because of what you've done,” Posner says.

When asked what age teachers could start implementing the fundamentals of The Student Leadership Challenge, he quickly replies “Four or five.”

Tip for Educators: Tailor the behaviors to fit the age group of your students. Example: Change 'Challenge the Process' to 'Take a Chance.'

While it may sound counterintuitive or surprising to start implementing leadership development at such a young age, there are ways to tailor the experience in an age-appropriate way. When implemented appropriately, they will build fundamental skills in the everyday classroom instead of a designated workshop that would be more appropriate for older students or in corporate settings.

“One of my favorite experiences was working with an elementary school here in the Bay Area which took our book and said, ‘Here are the things you need to learn about leadership’ and every month they took one of those principles and across kindergarten through fifth grade the teachers would go through a module and tailor the lesson. For example, they didn’t call it Challenge the Process, they called it taking a chance. At that month's assembly, they would give awards to a student who took a chance. They used the concepts of The Five Practices, and it helped,” Posner says, laughing. “The first time I went to that school was the first time I ever felt like a rock star because I came to the classroom and the kids were excited that I wrote the book.”

When thinking through ways educators can leverage the power of The Student Leadership Challenge in their own classrooms, Posner says it’s never too early to start.

“The concepts of taking responsibility, showing initiative, being kind, saying thank you are best taught at two years of age.”

Teaching Leadership Behaviors That Last

Posner offers tips for educators on how to introduce the concept of leadership development to their students. The first step is to ask people about their personal best leadership experiences. Once they have laid that foundation, the conversation can flow from there.

Tip for Educators: Start a conversation about your students' personal leadership experience.

“Everyone has a story to tell about leadership, and once they start that conversation, it reminds people that leadership is not something ‘out there' but something that they themselves are capable of,” Posner says.

When you position The Five Practices as an operating system, it can provide a framework that anyone of any age can use to become an effective leader.

“The truth is, if you engage in these behaviors, you will be a leader and you will make a difference. I say to educators that it is really important that everybody leaves the classroom feeling empowered,” Posner says.

“No matter how young or old, tall or short, thick or thin, no matter what their GPA is, they can make a positive difference in the classroom, residence halls, sports teams, workplace, and world.”

To learn more about bringing The Student Leadership Challenge to your students, visit The Student Leadership Challenge.

Purchase the latest edition of The Student Leadership Challenge here.

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