Teaching Profession Opinion

Helping Students Develop Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 02, 2013 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Susan R. Madsen. She is Professor of Management in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics. Recently she completed directing the two-year Utah Women and Education Project for the state of Utah and continues to work with key Utah stakeholders on related efforts.

For the past decade I have been on a quest to explore the lifetime development of leadership in high profile women leaders. I have spent years interviewing top women leaders in a variety of sectors (e.g., government, higher education, and industry) and countries. In all cases, these leaders talked about the foundational leadership development influences during their elementary and secondary years. A host of themes emerged from the data that I believe provide valuable insights for K-12 educators; I will highlight three of them in this blog.

Teachers can help students develop a love for learning
John F. Kennedy once said that “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Helping children develop a love for learning assists them in establishing a critical foundation for future leadership development. In my research, fifth and sixth grade teachers were often cited as “strong” and “positive” influences specifically because they helped their students develop this love for school and learning. For example, one university president said, “My sixth grade teacher was a woman who was passionate about education. She conveyed her own personal joy and passion in the way she taught us. In some ways I think these times made up special moments for me in (what we now call) the life of the mind. This includes being able to gain shared joy out of thinking, reading, and learning. I saw that in her, and I felt it in myself--the sheer joy that she felt was the joy that she ignited in me.” Many of the leaders’ elementary school teachers encouraged and inspired them to read as well as to appreciate the value of reading in their lives. In fact, all of the top leaders in my studies absolutely loved to read; each also believed that her love for reading led to a love for learning and that this love for learning was linked to an increased capacity to develop leadership competencies and abilities throughout her life. Many middle and high school teachers were also cited as influential in developing a love for learning as well--with English and math teachers leading the list.

Teachers can provide encouragement and opportunities for students to practice leadership
Nearly all of the women I interviewed reflected on the formal and informal leadership opportunities they had during their schooling, particularly at the secondary education level. These early experiences were formative in providing the practice and confidence they needed to proactively seek additional opportunities. The women in my studies highlighted teachers as critical forces in helping them see their strengths and then encouraging them to consider leadership roles for a variety of potential opportunities, including sports and debate teams, academic and service clubs, community groups like 4H and Girl Scouts, student government, and church youth groups. The acknowledgement of competence and capability from teachers was absolutely transformational for many of the women I interviewed for my studies.

Teachers can help students look at challenges as opportunities to learn
One of the most important skills that successful leaders possess is to be able to effectively learn from mistakes, failures, and challenges--their own as well as others around them. The leaders in my studies often discussed their challenges during K-12 years. These included such things as moving with their families to new towns and thus new schools, serious disputes with and lose of friends, being cut from sports teams or cheerleader squads, losing student leadership elections, deaths of people close to them, and school and/or community tragedies. Although parents were nearly always highlighted as the most influential individuals in helping these leaders work through issues, trusted teachers and administrators also played an important role in their lives when dealing with these challenges. Helping students look at mistakes, failures, or other types of challenges with a “learning lens” can help them develop powerful habits for life. Examples cited in my studies involved teachers 1) pulling them aside one-on-one, listening, and then provide perspective and encouragement, and 2) opportunities for class reflection and discussions after a school or community tragedy. When teachers help students build their skills and abilities to reflect and learn from all experiences--positive, negative, exciting, dreadful, joyful, and painful--they are building and strengthening the leadership capabilities of these students as well.

Leadership scholar and expert Warren Bennis said. “There are lessons in everything, and if you are fully deployed, you will learn most of them. Experiences aren’t truly yours until you think about them, analyze them, examine them, question them, reflect on them, and finally understanding them. The point, once again, is to use your experiences rather than being used by them, to be the designer, not the design, so that experiences empower rather than imprison” (p.92). Assisting children and teens understand this can be transformational for them. To be honest, as a former middle school teacher and mother of four children, I wish I would have better understood this much earlier in my life!

Bennis, Warren. (1989). On Becoming a Leader. Basic Books.
Madsen, Susan R. (2008). On Becoming a Woman Leader: Learning from the Experiences of University Presidents. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Madsen, Susan R. (2009). Developing Leadership: Learning from the Experiences of Women Governors. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Contact Susan Madsen

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