Leaders are likely to have leadership development experiences well before their careers take off (Murphy, 2011). Early life history experiences are predictive of later leader success, therefore it is important that the education system, a child goes through should provide opportunities for the child’s leadership development. The usual way to identify and build student leadership is through their participation in co-curricular activities and leadership behaviour within the classrooms. The question is how is leadership manifested among students?
Leadership evolves with age, thus effective leadership differs depending on the student’s developmental stage. However, the question remains, how to develop those leadership skills to enable them to perform those tasks expected of their age? According to McCauley and Van Velsor (2004), leaders can be developed through individual self-management capabilities, social capabilities and work facilitation capabilities.
Individual self-management capabilities involve the management of thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions leading to self-awareness, and the ability to balance conflicting demands. This enables leaders to develop positive and trusting relationships and to take initiatives.
Social capabilities are based on the belief that leadership by nature is social, which requires leaders to make meaningful connections with others and work effectively with others by building effective groups. Work facilitation capabilities see leaders facilitate the implementations, coordination and integration of work from individual groups and sub-systems that work independently. This is manifested in behaviours such as management skills, the ability to think and act strategically and creatively, and the ability to initiate and implement change.
These three leadership capabilities can be developed through developing the students’ entrepreneurial skills, resilience, emotional intelligence and communicative skills (Malaysian Education Blueprint 2012-2025). Entrepreneurship is the ability to take initiatives to create and develop one’s own solution to solve problems, the willingness to invest one’s resources in overcoming challenges and has the drive to see it through to its realization.
With entrepreneurial skills, a leader sees the potential opportunities and act upon them. As such, students’ entrepreneurial skill is conceptualized as the ability of the students to search and identify opportunities and converting them to gain benefits for themselves, the group and the school.
Resilience is seen as the development of a mindset that is both constructive and able to withstand setbacks. Rapid and disruptive change is normal in the lives of both the old and the young. To cope, leaders need to be agile and resilient people who are emotionally intelligent and can absorb complex changes and help others move toward success.
Characteristics of resilience are perseverance, self-reliance, able to face fear, possess cognitive and emotional flexibility, and physically fit to be able to press on in the face of adversity.
Emotional intelligence refers to possessing the ability to understand and work effectively with others and to influence them positively. It refers to how effective one deals with emotions both within oneself and others. Characteristics of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Students with emotional intelligence can manage their own emotion and understand and manage others’ emotion.
Communication skills are the ability to clearly express one’s opinion and intentions in oral and written form. With good communication skills, a leader can unify expectations about how a group of people will act. Characteristics of an able communicator can listen actively, analyze a situation, and encourage feedback and participation with follow-up on an important message. The objective of communication is to effect a change in behaviour by translating important objectives into terms through which others can readily understand.
Leadership is context-sensitive. To develop leadership among students, it is important to include tasks leaders face at various stages of their development. At the elementary school level, their leadership skills would be more than securing resources (demonstrated at the earliest stage) and it includes the concept of teamwork but still hierarchical based on the positional power of the leader. There are programmes in primary schools, for example, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Brownies, which focus on developing leadership in character development and values-based leadership training where they gain skills in the real world. The activities help build caring and confident youths and build future leaders through the use of small-group learning with the opportunity for hands-on experiences. The process of self-focus seems particularly important for this age group of young students.
Programmes for leadership development among high school students take a different form. Some of them could be of international levels, such as the Rotary Youth International and the Leo Club, in which students have the opportunity to learn alongside students from other countries. Some leadership programmes for this age group provide an individualised focus and others focus on developing the group or the community. All use experiential learning techniques to help students learn from hands-on experiences. Leadership is becoming an important part of high school students’ developmental experience.