Originally published in the 2013 Student Leaders magazine.
I have to be honest, my leadership career is not the most distinguished, nor have I ever really considered what it means to be a great leader. However, although I might not consciously think about it, I do see leadership as playing an important part in my future. Whether I choose to pursue politics and a career as a leader in my community, or follow a career in business and lead a team of my colleagues, I know that, in order to improve upon the status quo, I need to learn to be an effective leader. In this article, I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect on just two of the ideas that I’ve learnt about leadership in my sixteen years, in the hope that maybe you and I will both have a better idea of where we see our leadership careers headed.
Idea one: be a self-starter. Some people make a leadership career out of being a good talker and an inspiring manager, but many also arrive at leadership through other avenues. This is no truer than in the tech start-up world, where the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, whose innovations came after long hours of solitary work, have grown to fill some of the most important leadership positions in today’s world—both in business and philanthropy.
In my experience, you can run for school council or put up your hand to be captain of the school football team, but you won’t always be the best person for the role and sometimes, regrettably, you will simply be overlooked by others. I for one missed out on the opportunity to represent my community at New Zealand’s Youth Parliament this year—a disappointing climax to a grueling application process. However, in spite of not gaining the position against many other very worthy candidates, the process at least made me consider how I would, as a leader and Member of Parliament, tackle important social issues, such as child poverty and the future of education in New Zealand. Armed with a better understanding of these issues, I now realise that I do not need to be selected just to do something positive in my community, but that I can use my knowledge of current issues and my skills in writing and debating to persuade young people as to how we can address these society-wide challenges. By blogging regularly about issues that directly affect people of my age, I have been able to steadily build a stronger online following of both teenagers and adults. This goes someway to demonstrating that you can use experiences that might have seemed like failures at the time to motivate you towards taking the initiative, by putting your own skills, and your determination to make a difference, to work.
Granted, it is great if you can gain a leadership position in your school council or sports team, but even then, if your goal is really to effect positive change of some sort—improving sustainability in your school, making the semi-finals of a football competition—it will still require a degree of initiative. The simple act of trying something new and persuading others to follow you is demonstrating that you are an active leader and a self-starter, not simply there for the title. Effective leadership and having the attitude of a self-starter, in other words, are not mutually exclusive, but necessary regardless of whether you are elected into leadership or create your own leadership opportunity.
Also, never let the disappointment of not being selected by adults or peers for an established leadership role discourage you from paving your own way as a leader. If leadership is all about persuading people to work with you towards a common goal—and you have a clear goal in mind—then you are already best placed to start acting on it.
For example, I recently co-founded a school magazine, The Cabbage Chronicle. Rather than filling the shoes of a previous leader, I was—and continue to be—charged with the roles of editor, manager, and administrator, pairing writers with stories, getting words to page, and considering how we can evolve to better cater for our audience of teenagers. However, in the absence of a predecessor to follow, there have been many challenges along the way, too. A busy person already, I have had to make the difficult decision to end some of my prior commitments, including music lessons, so that I have the time to devote to the magazine. In doing so, I have risked the potential for success in music for the opportunity to turn this magazine into something influential. I have also witnessed the initial enthusiasm of writers peter out after launch, forcing me as a leader to show them that they are valued not just by our team, but by readers around the school, and that their writing contributes to a larger vision (which I will soon touch upon). By negotiating to feature our magazine on the school website, and subsequently receiving several hundred more visitors to the magazine’s website, I have been able to show writers that we are not merely a small club in a massive school, but that we are fulfilling a real want among the student body.
These challenges also encapsulate the joy of being a self-starter. Unconstrained by the expectations of previous leaders or established traditions, a self-starter can shape their approach with agility, by testing novel approaches to challenges as they arise, such as experimenting with different methods of promoting the magazine, from posting on Facebook to speaking in school assembly. Being a self-starter also brings with it a greater sense of accomplishment, knowing that you have played a leading role in your team’s success, and that you have successfully dealt to these challenges.
Idea two: have a vision. As a teenager, I have already experienced the effects that adolescence can have on one’s childhood ambitions. I have seen how the increasing demands of school and the expectations of wider society that I will follow one of several pre-determined paths have diminished some of my greater goals. My passion is for creating things that solve real problems or meet a need in my community. The Cabbage Chronicle, for example, aims to accomplish this by strengthening the sense of community in my school of 2600 students, and my blog aims to persuade readers how our society should tackle important social issues. Yet, there are still times when I find myself pushed towards the career ladder and into conformity. After all, it is much easier to tell parents, teachers, and friends that you want to become a businessman or lawyer than to say that you want to do whatever it takes to end poverty or develop the next Facebook. Now, clearly, you need to start somewhere, but it is important that you do not forego that original sense of ambition, even if you do, for example, find yourself in the lower echelons of a hierarchical organisation. Overcoming resistance, after all, is one of the hallmarks of a great leader, and knowing what you stand for is essential in informing how you go about this. For inspiration, we need only look to human rights leaders in history, such as Rosa Parks. An African American woman in 1950s America, she faced a strong undercurrent of social opposition. Yet, her life-long vision of a society in which race was not a determinant of one’s rights led her to take a stand, by refusing to move from her bus seat for a white man. What we hear less about are her years of activism as a member of the NAACP before her famous example of non-violent direct action. Rosa Parks’ success as a leader, therefore, was not merely due to a single act, but was born out of a vision that for years she worked towards.
So, join me in stepping back and taking time to formulate your vision and your specific goals. Then align those goals with reality. I wish I had enough time for the number of projects and ideas that I think of, but through a kind of natural selection, I always make time for the best ones. Nevertheless, in order for any idea to succeed, and for people to stick with you, you need to be able to clearly articulate where you are going, what you want to achieve, and what success will look like. With The Cabbage Chronicle, our overarching goal is to create a publication that students will read and discuss around school on a weekly basis. We want to see students writing in with their comments and articles, and writers receiving recognition from their peers for their work. In a broader sense, as an individual, I want to put my final two years of secondary school towards improving education by, for example, finding ways that technology can lower the barriers to learning and thinking of methods by which schools can teach co-operation and entrepreneurship as well as numeracy and literacy.
Your vision may look completely different to mine, and may well shift as time goes by, but just having a vision is an essential tool in conveying to people why they ought to join in on your goals.
Leadership is not easily defined. It does not merely constitute gaining an executive position in a large corporation, or being in charge of a sports team, or telling people what to do. I hope that I have shown you that leadership is not about being elected or selected, but having the courage to be a self-starter and having a vision that others can commit to. Leadership begins with a vision and an idea, and the ability to persuade others to follow you. Leadership, in other words, is both the genesis and the evolution.