Walking the Walk on Youth Leadership Development

Recently, I attended a dinner where the keynote speaker gave a speech on youth leadership. This topic is of great interest to me because a significant portion of IIE’s work in sub-Saharan Africa focuses on leadership development, particularly for women and youth. The speaker talked about the importance of making space for young people. Afterward, my dinner companion remarked, “There is so much talk about leadership these days, but I’d really like to know what people are actually doing to make space for young people.” His comments resonated with me.

Today, we are experiencing the fastest world population growth in history. Approximately 1.8 billion of the world’s 7 billion people are between the ages of 15-24, and the number of people under the age of 15 is even higher. The majority of these under-15 youths are concentrated in developing countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though they are frequently referred to as “future leaders” in whichever region they live, access to quality higher education is often difficult for them. Those who graduate from universities struggle to find jobs. The world economic crisis is making it difficult for young people across the world to contribute to their communities.

At IIE, we believe that everyone has the potential to lead if given the opportunity, and that leadership skills can be developed through both formal and informal processes. Even more importantly, we believe that leadership is about developing and inspiring the next generation. In our leadership programs we focus on vision-building, practicing ethical and values-based leadership, building practical leadership skills and competencies, and supporting leadership actions. We have seen many young people develop traits that equip them for solving the multitude of challenges that we face today, and we are proud of those successes. Nevertheless, I sometimes worry that, as my dinner companion said, we, along with other sectors, aren’t always practicing what we preach.

In order to strengthen leadership development initiatives for youths, I’d like to offer some suggestions. Please feel free to add to these in the comments below:

  • Create an internship program at your organization; make time for interns and give them challenging assignments that nurture their development.
  • Hire young people out of college, even if they don’t have a lot of experience, and give them the experience they need to become productive and successful employees.
  • Make time for informational interviews and help young people network to find employment.
  • Take risks with your younger employees by empowering them with challenging tasks.
  • Actively support policies in your community that address youth employment.
  • Listen to young people and be willing to learn from them.

Leadership development isn’t just about helping leaders improve. It’s also about helping leaders make sure that the next generation of leaders will have the vision, commitment, knowledge, and skills necessary to lead. It’s the most important job we can do as leaders. How are you developing leaders in your context? Let us hear from you.