4 Key Things to Look Out For When Choosing Student Leaders

What do you do if you selected a wrong student for the leadership role?

This was a question asked at a teacher’s workshop on “How to Select Student Leaders”. For the new and uninitiated, the selection of student leaders for specific leadership roles can be a difficult arena to navigate. The stakes are high, the consequences of a “wrong” choice can be drastic, the development journey can be arduous, and the questions surrounding leadership selection can be endless.

In our many years working with schools and consulting on youth leadership development with various youth organisations, we found that thriving youth leaders have four key traits. While competency can be an obvious criterion for leadership selection, it is often the less tangible that determines what drives a young person to lead and grow. The four traits can be summarised by the acronym “CAST”.

1. Character
“Intellectual honest and personal courage are the hallmarks of great character” – Brian Tracy

Character is about what a person values, and it is also about a person’s mental and emotional capacity to surmount challenges in trying times (ie. strength of character). When looking out for promising students for positions of key leadership, it is important that he upholds morally upright values in speech and deed; a person that you have no qualms about being a role model for the rest. Because leadership is often a difficult journey, he also should have the strength of character to last the journey. When others around him crumble under pressure, he will continue to stand out as a source of strength and inspiration to the rest.

Application: Make a checklist of non-negotiable values that the student must have in such a key leadership position. They can vary according to the context and the importance of the leadership role. Some examples are integrity, discipline, diligence and compassion.

2. Availability
“Ability is meaningless without availability.”

This is a line I often share with youths. No matter how much ability an individual possesses, he is of little use to an organisation if he does not avail time and effort to serve. The same is true for student leaders. Selecting students based solely on competency can be a fatal mistake if he is not committed to serving the school or the co-curricular activity (CCA).

Application: An observable indicator of whether a person will avail his time and effort is by looking at his attendance records, as well as his contribution when he is present. If he displays presence of mind and being while attending CCA/meetings, there is a high chance that he is making an intentional effort to avail his time and effort.

3. Service Oriented
“To lead is to serve.” – Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership

Self-serving leaders have limited capacity to think for the larger good of the organisation and the people they lead. Self-serving leaders will perpetuate a similarly self-serving culture amongst the team. Young people are looking increasingly for leaders with a heart of care and concern for their needs. Leaders who are sensitive to these needs and able to serve these needs have a greater influence over those they lead.

Application: Look out for students who show thoughtfulness in the little things. For example, picking litter when no one is looking, or random acts of kindness. They are naturally inclined towards the well-being of others over their own.

4. Teachability
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” ­– John F. Kennedy

Mistakes are inevitable as part of a young person’s leadership journey, and mistakes present great learning opportunities. How far a leader grows depends largely on how willing he is to learn. On the other hand, students who deem themselves as having “gotten it all together” inadvertently place a cap on their own potential for learning.

Application: Some traits of a teachable student are willingness to own up to mistakes, being responsible for mistakes, being open to correction, and having courage to try again. If one finds a teachable student, one should also be willing to invest the time and effort in the development and growth of such a student.

Students that fit into this “CAST” do not come by easily. When they do, we should be on the lookout to position them in key leadership roles. More than that, we should be on the lookout for opportunities to position them for growth and development. In economic terms, these are the ones who will have the highest “return on investment” when you grow and develop them. Their growth will in turn benefit the school communities in which they have been positioned to lead.


Article by Sean Kong

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