Building leadership qualities in teens

Follow me, I know the way! 

In this two-part blog series, we’re going to talk about leadership.

But first, a bit of context. Giving centre stage to real world competencies (like leadership) is at the heart of Spain’s new educational law, the LOMLOE. However, the conversation around competence-based teaching and learning has been developing for quite some time. Pearson’s employability framework developed in 2019 is a useful resource for teachers looking for both research and practical guidance on teaching and assessing key competencies..

One of the competencies outlined by the framework is leadership: check out the full report if you’re feeling studious or the executive summary for an overview. And of course, keep reading this blog post in which we’ll look at how we can develop leadership in our teens. Let’s begin!

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Think of three great leaders. What makes them great?
  2. What characteristics should a good leader have and what characteristics shouldn’t they have?

Have a think…

NeONBRAND – Unsplash

I wonder who you chose? Napoleon or Alexander the Great? Joan of Arc? Winston Churchill? Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Rosa Parks? Or did you go more contemporary, perhaps choosing Jacinda Ahern or Angela Merkel? Maybe Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai? Did you go for a fictional character? Gandalf? Khaleesi? Lauded leaders for very different reasons.

When asking questions like the second one about leadership characteristics, approaches include:

a) Getting students to do a quick brainstorm individually, then to share ideas with a partner, then the class.
b) Giving students some characteristics, getting them to categorise these characteristics (into two or into three groups if there’s a grey area) or to put them in order of desirability. These activities encourage speaking and critical thinking.
c)  Seeing if students can add more ideas to those they categorised.

Here are some example characteristics (open to preteaching vocabulary or simplification depending on students’ level):

  • Challenges assumptions and set ways of doing things
  • Demands respect and obedience
  • Fosters collaboration among team members: gives everyone a voice
  • Imposing: does not tolerate dissent or being challenged
  • Makes all the decisions
  • Promotes inclusivity: ensures all individuals are welcome regardless of background
  • Can give and receive feedback effectively
  • Expects a strict hierarchy to be followed
  • Has an idea and drives everyone to realise it
  • Is inspiring
  • Is charismatic and confident
  • Establishes vision: communicates possibilities for the future
  • Is open-minded to new ideas and respectful of contributions

A comment on our list

In this list we’ve mixed some older, more authoritarian stereotypes of leaders (Does not tolerate dissent) with ideas that reflect what is expected of leaders now, such as  giving others a voice (not only to be nice: ten heads are better than one: know your team members’ strengths and use them!). There are also characteristics that might go in the middle of a Venn diagram. Being charismatic and confident is useful, but not necessarily a prerequisite for being a good leader. Demanding respect and obedience: this sounds old-fashioned, but a teacher (an example of a leader) deserves to be respected and needs their students to follow instructions! Perhaps ‘demanding’ is what needs to be softened here. But overall, society is becoming less hierarchical and this means that everyone takes more responsibility and has some leadership . And this is one of the reasons that makes leadership a key competence.

Having thought about what leadership is, let’s look at other activities that develop it in our teens:

  1. We can talk about what leadership is explicitly, we can examine it as a concept.

The categorising above is an example of this. To build on this we have a reading exercise that sees four teens talk about their experiences of leadership (click to expand):

Gold Experience C1

Here are some excerpts from the texts:

As you can glean from the excerpts, the texts challenge older concepts of leadership and emphasise that there are different ways to be a leader.

Using stories are also a great vehicle for teaching and demonstrating values and competences. This video story teaches functional language for permission, but also demonstrates leadership qualities through the behaviour of the teens.

Your World, (2022) – level 1


2. Let’s now move onto activities that allow our teens to be the leaders, beginning with moderating a debate.

In Britain, probably the most famous debate moderator is the figure of the Speaker in the House of Commons. He or she can often be heard shouting ‘Order!’ to get politicians to stop interrupting one another – these politicians are hardly role models for how we want our students to debate! The speaker’s interventions are often more colourful as evidenced here , but what might we expect from our students when moderating a debate? First, let’s consider what a debate might look like:


Real World Advanced, level 3

With the historical popularity of bullfighting over here in Spain, now banned in some parts of the country, this debate should get students talking. The moderator of the debate can:

  • Introduce the motion to be debated
  • Assign the turn to participants
  • Keep participants to a time limit
  • Sum up what participants have said

This is going to require functional language (‘Thank you for your contribution Álvaro, can we now hear what Lucia thinks?’), a stop watch, very close listening and the language ability to paraphrase if the moderator is going to sum up. The moderator is often a role taken on by the teacher, but it can be delegated: a helpful approach is for the teacher to moderate the first debate as a model.

If we consider that a leader fosters collaboration, respects and acknowledges contributions and is open-minded to ideas and viewpoints, then moderating a debate helps build leadership skills. The above also applies to the simpler task of moderating a group discussion (Eg. Of the type ‘Which of these five ways of X is the best to achieve Y?’)

3. Outlining success criteria and getting our students peer assessing is a great way of helping them understand what it means to do a given task well and to learn and improve on their performance. It also builds leadership skills, as good leaders know how to give and receive feedback.

Researchers like John Hattie have written extensively on the power of feedback and and as teachers we’re encouraged to give feedback that’s clear and understandable, descriptive, specific, actionable and timely. Although our students are not on a teacher training course, there’s theory we can use, albeit with modification.

Here is an example checklist for students to analyse:

Gold Experience B2

Following this, we can have our students giving some feedback on a piece of work. To do this they’ll need to understand what the success criteria are for the task: this will allow them to give specific feedback. Then, based on the feedback they’ve been given, students can consider what they can to do improve for next time. Here’s an example of that:

That brings part one to a close! I hope this post has served to examine the concept of leadership, looked at ways to talk about leadership with our students and to propose activities that can get our students leading. Stay tuned for part 2 in which we’ll look at more activities to cultivate leadership qualities in our teenage students.

For more information on Gold Experience, click here

For more information on Real World Advanced, click here

Your World, Pearson’s new course for teens is out in 2022!

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