Sports Education

Developing effective leaders

Leadership is a performing art, and the best way to get better at it is to practice it while learning about it — Jim Thompson, founder, Positive Coaching Alliance, USA

An urgent need of these complex times is to equip youth to lead the way into the future. Admittedly, it’s important to teach them to be followers first — but there’s a greater need for leadership development programmes and strategies as young people make their progress through high school, college and begin their careers. Yet, the fact is that most youth never participate in formal leadership development programmes.

For the past several years, I have been devoting my time and energy to a youth leadership development programme called Leading2Play.

In 2011, America’s secretary of defence Robert Gates delivered his final speech at the famous Military Academy, West Point where he posed the question: How will new leaders emerge when military academies (which train cadets to defend justice and liberty in zones of terrible conflict around the world) are obliged to position young leaders in cubicles to re-arrange PowerPoint slides? In his address to cadets and commandants, Gates raised the question of how will true military leaders develop without being confronted with genuine military challenges.

During this important address, the defence secretary highlighted the reality that military conflict is now very different from what it was in World War II or Vietnam. The enemy today is often not an evil country but suicidally determined terrorists. This makes modern warfare more messy and complex than ever. On the other hand, the capabilities of soldiers, sailors and airmen to shoot, move and communicate today is stunning. On any given day, decisions are made in real time, on the ground, even in the midst of a ballooning crisis — and they’re made by officers behind and in front lines and theatres of action.

However despite the radically changed nature of modern warfare, leadership skills are developed when young men and women make tough decisions on the ground in real time. To put it another way, technology doesn’t create leaders, experiences do.

Comfort doesn’t create leaders, crises do. Today, the science of leadership development is all about moving outside comfort zones to push causes or teams of people forward into difficult situations. Presenting youth with problems and challenges is the first requirement of contemporary leadership programmes.

In addition to this external factor, leadership programmes require one more essential ingredient. They must teach responsibility.

Young people never actually learn to lead without learning to take responsibility in difficult situations, including combat. In the armed forces, young combatants are taught to quickly communicate real-time situations and derive the authority to “take the shot” if needed. These days, permission to act is given swiftly — scary but empowering. We can teach all day, show videos, play instructive games and do assessments, but until we actually invest young people with responsibility, we won’t succeed in developing effective leaders.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in the power of teaching, videos, experiential learning and assessments. These are education tools necessary to prepare young leaders. But, while they may simulate leadership training, they aren’t sufficient. Just as reading books about weightlifting, observing a fitness centre or watching videos of strong guys cannot build muscles. Students require authentic experiences with real people in real time to develop into effective leaders. Only when teachers invest experiences and responsibility into leadership training do lectures, videos and testing become relevant.

In the Leading2Play programme, we worked with students who accept challenges and full responsibility for the play and physical activities of ‘transition students’ (intellectually disadvantaged) in one school. In another, the student leadership team trains older students to run recess programmes for younger students. Do they ever make mistakes and poor decisions? Of course! They’re young and inexperienced. But our experience is that students are enthused about leadership development programmes only when they are given responsibility for realising outcomes in difficult situations. In schools across the US, they are solving problems, raising money, recruiting peers to volunteer and inciting passion. It isn’t the most polished leadership training programme they might ever experience, but it probably will be the most effective. Why? Because they take ownership of such programmes.

In Leading2Play, we believe we face the same obstacle that defence secretary Gates addressed in his West Point lecture. Without giving youth a ‘battle’ to fight, a problem to solve, or a cause to serve, we cannot develop capable leaders. Genuine leaders want to solve problems and they need teachers to give them the opportunity and responsibility.

(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)