Most simply, a leader is someone who has followers or is making a significant impact upon a given group of people. Many see themselves as leaders because they have studied or been trained in leadership, but they may never really have had any followers or have no significant influence in motivating a given group of friends
Children desire leadership from their parents. Teenagers seek to share in leadership-to become leaders themselves-while expecting the right kind of leadership from coaches, teachers and youth workers. It is impossible to observe any subculture of youth without noticing some “pacesetters” or initiators who get things going, set the pace, or initiate new activities. Many peer groups operate on the basis of shared leadership, but even with such a style, leadership remains important.
The world doesn’t seem to work without leaders. There are sometimes complaints about a leadership vacuum-the absence of positive role models and effective leadership. There are overlaps and subtle differences among the terms leaders, heroes, role models, and celebrities which can provide interesting discussions with young people.
Historically, crisis seems to bring out leaders. Mandela was there when he was needed. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were timely leaders. The U.S. needed Abraham Lincoln in a time of great domestic crisis. Winston Churchill seemed to be a better leader in the crisis of war than in the aftermath of peace.
Much can be gained from the study of ancient leaders: Moses, Saul and David, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Alexander the Great, and the lesser known Alfred the Great. In the lives of many great leaders, we see striking flaws as well as admirable characteristics.
What people admire in leaders is conditioned by the culture and times. Here is how an ancient Hebrew writer described a greatly admired leader.
Strap your sword upon your thigh, O mighty warrior,
in your pride and in your majesty.
Ride out and conquer in the cause of truth
and for the sake of justice.
Your right hand will show you marvelous things;
your arrows are very sharp, O mighty warrior.
The peoples are falling at your feet,
and the king’s enemies are losing heart. (Psalm 45:3-6, BCP)
Current ideals lean more toward servant leadership. Though we talk about the leader as servant, most CEOs, coaches, presidents or prime ministers still act from the power of a hierarchical structure.
Definition of Leadership
What do we mean by a leader; it hasn’t yet been defined. Most simply, a leader is one who has followers. Many see themselves as leaders because they have studied or been trained in leadership, but they may never really have had any followers. Many positions in adult society automatically provide followers. A teacher or coach who can maintain discipline and knows what he or she wants to accomplish, has instant followers-as do managers in business, political leaders, and even pastors of a church. But in most cases, youth workers have to earn the right to lead through relationships and activities. Youth leaders have voluntary followers!
Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard (1988, p. 86) give us a summary of leadership definitions:
According to George R. Terry (1960, p. 493), ‘Leadership is the activity of influencing people to strive willingly for group objectives.’ Robert Tannenbaum, I.R. Weschler & Fred Massarik (1959) define leadership as ‘interpersonal influence exercised in a situation and directed, through the communication process, toward the attainment of specialized goals.’ Harold Koontz and Cyril O’Donnell (1959, p. 435) state that ‘leadership is influencing people to follow in the achievement of a common goal.’
A review of other writers reveals that most management writers agree THAT leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation. From this definition of leadership, it follows that the leadership process is a function of a leader, the follower, and other situational variables.
We are talking then about a dynamic process in some particular situation and over an extended period of time in which someone with particular skills and using a particular style interacts with those, who with him or her, want to accomplish something-arrive at a certain goal or goals.
Sometimes a distinction is made between leaders and managers. Although the terms are most often used as synonyms, emphasis on the leader connotes a visionary inspiring others toward a given purpose while the manager gets things done (accomplishes goals) by planning, control, and evaluation. Do you consider yourself more of a leader or a manager, and how can you compensate for what you lack?
Eric Hoffer (True Believer) distinguishes original leaders of nations and movements as “men of words” (Lenin) from the more managerial “men of action,” (Stalin) who followed by organizing and making the vision work. Many youth organizations provide examples of this pattern of development.
Further Review of the Literature on Leadership
Anthony D’Souza is a Third World writer who book Leadership (Nairobi, Kenya: Pauline Publications Africa, 1989, 1997) is a trilogy: “Being a Leader,” “Leading Others,” “Leading Effectively.” It brings together much that has been studied about leadership and management. He sees leadership styles along a continuum from Leader-Centered to Group-Centered. The authority of a leader is relinquished, and group freedom gained as leaders move from telling to persuading to consulting to participating and finally to delegating. Where do you see your style of leadership on such a continuum?
Also helpful is D’Sousa’s diagram of four important influences on leadership behavior: the personality of the leader, the personality of group members, the nature of the task, and the nature of the environment. This helps in contrasting a professional football team to pick-up basketball or volleyball competition, and high powered business situation to a youth group.
Eugene Seals and Matthew Parker have edited Called To Lead: Wisdom for the Next Generation of African American Leaders (Farmington Hills, MI: Quality Publishing Systems, 1995). In this book John Perkins, who was taken out of elementary school after three years to work in the cotton fields and was later beaten by white police for being a leader of a protest, and has emerged as a national leader for reconciliation and urban development gives three characteristics of leadership: “A leader must learn how to stand alone; a leader must know how to plan and manage; a leader must know how to live with pain.” (pp. 36-37) Youth work must develop better multi-cultural sensitivity.
Jane Adams (Women on Top, New York: Hawthorne Books, 1979) deals with distinctions between men and women and how a women’s drive for success in management may threaten her with male characteristics she would rather avoid. Women under male leadership and male leaders can profit greatly from Janet L. Kobobel’s “But Can She Type?” Overcoming Stereotypes in the Workplace (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986) Youth work has often been male-dominated and needs to function comfortably under the leadership of women.
Dysfunctional leadership and situations are describes in Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel’s The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss and Perpetuate Sick Organizations (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). Using research on addiction these authors conclude that society itself and its organizations can function as an addict. What is often accepted as “normal” or “acceptable” organizational or leadership behavior, may actually be “addictive behavior masquerading as corporate structure and function” (p. 4). There are too many striking examples of dysfunctional youth organizations or youth work struggling within larger dysfunctional systems.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do youth workers need to be concerned with leadership theory and practice?
Does a lack of such understanding contribute to burn-out and unprofessional style of work?
What do you find most helpful in this article? Why so?
About what in this article do you disagree or what would you like to discuss further?
A primary function of leadership is moving people from a recognition of the way things are to the way things might be…a new vision.
Healthy leaders are initiators, catalysts, enablers. Servant leaders humble themselves so that others may be lifted up.
Youth work needs not only leaders; it needs leaders of leaders.