Encouraging Adolescent Leadership

What does teen leadership look like and how can we encourage our kids to take on leadership roles? An expert from the Center for Talent Development explains.

Leaders provide direction and focus, whether they are in the world of politics, religion, community, jobs or family. Being in a leadership role isn’t just something for adults. Young people can provide leadership when they’re motivated by a desire to help or change things on a small or large scale, or when they are encouraged to raise their voice.

The Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University (CTD) believes in the value of leadership from adolescents and the need for society to nurture it. Linsey Athena Crowninshield-Ryan, Coordinator of the Civic Education Project at the center, shares some insight into building leadership qualities in teens.

Adolescents in leadership roles

Leadership in young people can look different in different situations. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all for being a leader. You can be one through a lot of different avenues,” says Crowninshield-Ryan, including community service, extracurricular activities, tutoring, helping a younger sibling.

“Being an active voice, able to express what you’re passionate about and how to make change in a socially responsible way, can be really powerful,” says Crowninshield-Ryan.

“Leadership isn’t always about coming up with your own unique idea to make change. It can also be about sharing ideas that are already out there to further spread the understanding, education and knowledge of what those folks are doing,” she says.

Being welcoming and inclusive of other perspectives and ideas is also important in leadership.  Crowninshield-Ryan recommends that adolescents engage in dialogue with others that challenge their own ideas, and learn from their peers.

Encouraging Adolescent leaders

At CTD, students are empowered to personalize their own leadership journey through online, school year and summer leadership programs based on their passions and the pathways they want to explore.

Specially designed for students grades 6-12, the program offers a wide variety of models and pre-college level courses. Students experience hands-on learning to promote critical thinking skills and an asset-based framework to explore social issues.

Photo credit: Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University

The programs are experiential and benefit from community partnerships and organizations. Programs such as the Civic Leadership Institute (CLI) provide students with a unique opportunity to explore current social and political issues through service-learning experiences, exchanges with community leaders and academic study. Students consider multiple approaches and ideas to move through their course content.

In the leadership and service-learning programs at CTD, students are encouraged to reflect on what they learned and how they can apply their strengths to what’s next in their everyday lives and what they want to do in their future careers.

Leadership Personality Types

Often, we think of leaders as being vocal about what they’re passionate about. But Crowninshield-Ryan points out that some adolescents show their leadership capacity by doing.

“It’s about tapping into their specific assets, gaining awareness of what their strengths are and how we can translate those into continuing to develop stronger leadership skills to build their leadership capacity,” she says.

A teen’s passion to lead can be squelched by barriers from others or from themselves. Some of these can become benefits. For example, a young person may go to a principal, teacher or family member with an idea for something they want to take on only to meet resistance, which can shatter their confidence. However, Crowninshield-Ryan points out that a key part of being a leader is being adaptable.

“Just because one door closes, there are many more that can be opened,” she says.

To learn more about Center for Talent Development’s leadership and service-learning programs, please visit ctd.northwestern.edu/service-learning-and-leadership.


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