Defining Leadership

BY Michelle Beran
4-H Focus

I talk a lot about leadership and truly believe that helping young people develop strong leadership skills is crucial to the long-term health of our rural communities. That 4-H or FFA officer is practicing skills today to help them serve in the future as school board members, county commissioners, city council members and business people.
An interesting article by Dr. Tim Elmore (“Is Every Kid Supposed to be a Leader” Jan. 9, 2019) poses important questions about the different types of leadership.
In response to the questions “Is everyone a leader”, Dr. Elmore responds, “The answer is yes and no. It all depends on how you define the word ‘leader’. If you define it in the traditional fashion — that a leader is someone with a position, in charge of a group of people in an organization — then, the answer is no. Not everyone and certainly not every student is gifted to become the president, CEO or key leader of an organization. Most never occupy a top spot in a flow chart. Perhaps only 10 percent of the population will. For the sake of discussion, we’ll call these people ‘Leaders’ with a capital ‘L.’ If leadership means possessing a gift to organize groups of people to accomplish a task, then it’s exclusive and obviously not for everyone. In fact, we will frustrate students by telling them they are “Leaders” — only to disappoint them with a lofty ideal they’ll never attain. We create a false expectation. Most of the arguments surrounding this question boil down to contrasting definitions.”
These leaders are important to provide vision and direction. But there are many other types of leaders that are crucial to the success of a community, business, or organization.
Dr. Elmore goes on to say, “If we define leadership in a different manner, however, it opens up an entirely new perspective for students. What if leadership was more about people pursuing a ‘calling’ in their life; a calling with which they will influence others in its fulfillment? What if it had more to do with finding an area of strength — and in using that strength, they’ll naturally influence others in a positive way? It seems to me, every one of us possesses some strength or gift that enables us to master something and to influence others in a healthy way.”
I call these “quiet leaders”. This is the youth who steps up to help another get ready for the show ring; who volunteers to show another how to refine the fins on their rocket; who is always ready to take on a task for their club knowing that they will get no recognition but secure in the knowledge that it is the “right thing to do”. These leaders make or break companies.
Dr. Elmore states that as youth mature, we need to help them “naturally uncover their strengths, so they can serve people and influence them in a positive way. Students may not even have a position at the top of a flow chart, but they lead.”
Dr. Elmore defines the two types of leaders as Habitual or Situational leaders. “Habitual leaders are natural leaders and tend to be good at leading any group. Situational leaders don’t usually feel like leaders until they find the right situation that fits their passions and their strengths. Once they are in the area of their strength, they come alive and become the right one to lead in that particular situation.”
It is important as parents, teachers, and mentors that we help students find their “situation” where they can fulfill their purpose and leverage their best influence. They aren’t going to do this perfectly every time so having mentors who can provide appropriate feedback while letting them learn is a necessary step.
Dr. Elmore believes — and I heartily agree — that effective, lasting leaders earn a right to influence others because they solve problems and serve people which sounds a lot like 4-H opportunities. He includes summary conclusions from research by the Kellogg Foundation that:
1) Every student has the potential to be a leader;
2) Leadership cannot be separated from values;
3) Leadership skills must be taught;
4) In today’s world, every student will need leadership skills.
The 4-H Pledge includes “my head to clearer thinking” — making good decisions; and “my hands to larger service” — giving to and leading others.
4-H provides excellent opportunities for youth to learn and practice leadership from serving as officers to honing communication skills. It also provides many situations for youth to identify those situations that help them find a strength and the possibilities to lead.

The material for this article is from the 2012 Michigan State University 4-H Development “Ready to Go: Mentor Training Toolkit”.

Michelle Beran is the 4-H and Youth Development Agent in the Midway Extension District. For more information on this article or other 4-H Youth and Development related questions email Michelle at or call a Midway District office at (785) 483-3157 or (785) 472-4442.

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