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How to Develop Student Leadership

How to Develop Student Leadership

As important in the Church as incorporating spiritual disciplines and fostering community growth is coming alongside students and teaching them how to lead. Many potential leaders will remain untapped unless mentors invest in and instruct them—and that is something the Church cannot afford.

“College students leading other students is so important and so effective,” says Denise Van Eck, founding partner of Deep Shift Coaching and Consulting ( and author of Leadership 101. “I’ve seen college students far more effective or just as effective as 50-year-olds trying to do that. Letting them have access to wisdom and experience, though—a mentor to equip them—is absolutely essential.”

The question is, how should they be mentored? The seemingly daunting task of preparing the coming generation to lead Christ’s community comes down to a few overarching principles that can be applied to a variety of students and ministries.

Include Every Student

In the quest to develop leadership, it’s tempting to invest in students who already exhibit qualities our culture expects effective leaders to have. By doing that, truly great leaders can be passed over because of shyness or lack of knowledge as to how to use their leadership-oriented traits. Van Eck advocates incorporating every student possible into leadership-advancement classes instead of picking and choosing.

It might take extra effort—as most important things require—but making it a priority to include everyone could lead to a discovery of great unmined leadership qualities.

“One of my favorite stories is of a student named Doren,” Van Eck says. “Doren had been home-schooled all of his life. He was quite introverted, shy, never stood out and wouldn’t have been someone who would have been chosen out of the crowd for leaders. But as we started to really pour into Doren, he started to practice leadership. Doren has been out of high school for three years now, and he’s won all sorts of awards and led several different ministry initiatives. He continually reminds me that leadership really comes from the heart, and it’s not about the external behaviors that fit the typical model.”

Encourage Necessary Traits

By building up certain characteristics in your students, you can cultivate their ability to effectively lead others. Van Eck has found a few qualities to push for.

Authenticity and being comfortable with themselves are two qualities to zone in on with your students. As Van Eck says, “People can smell a rat at 500 paces.” Don’t try to bend your students into a cookie-cutter shape; instead, show them how their specific personalities will help them lead specific people.

Van Eck also says that to be a good leader, your students should be good followers. “I really believe that when we move into our postmodern world, leadership is going to be more about collaboration, intuition and networking,” she says. “The ability to both lead and follow at the same time will be very important.”

The most important trait you should encourage and pray for in your students is courage. “Real courage has to do with strength in the heart and the ability to do what needs to be done,” Van Eck says. “When leaders truly understand who they are and have an ability to discern and to see outside of themselves—that’s where the quality of courage really comes in as key. I don’t think anyone can ever lead effectively without courage.”

Expose Students to Admirable Examples

While talking to your students about the characteristics they should have is a great method to employ, one of the best ways to teach the younger generations is to play a little show and tell. Introduce them to the great leaders of the past, discover who they consider to be admirable leaders and determine what makes them so memorable.

“Ask your students who the leaders are in their lives,” Van Eck says. “Expose them to leaders in formal and smaller positions, and help them begin the process of discerning what makes them effective—how are they creating change and leading some movement. Help them to discern those things. It’s all about immersing them into leadership in real life by taking leadership out of the realm of theory and into the realm of practice.”

While it is crucial to show your students examples of leaders from the past, remember that they’re seeing one of the most real examples of leadership in you. Make sure you exemplify all of the leadership characteristics you are teaching them, thereby allowing your students to see true leadership in action, not just in history books. Authenticity is vital to leadership mentors, Van Eck says, so instead of masking your failures, show students what you’ve learned from them.

Continue to Counsel as Students Grow

The majority of leadership classes promise to make a leader out of anyone in weeks. As wonderful as that may sound, the reality, according to Van Eck, is that leadership development is an “ongoing, unending, long and slow, not hard and fast process.” When it’s up to you to mentor students into leadership, make sure you’re committed for the long haul.

As time goes on, though, give your students more room to learn through action. Instead of always teaching and telling your students about leading, let them invent and experiment with new leadership models, drawing from their situations and perspectives.

While your students decipher what it means for them to be a leader, always encourage them to practice in small and large opportunities. Real-world experience is the best way to make the words and examples you provide sink in.

“I really like to help students see their lives holistically—to see all the opportunities for leadership,” Van Eck says. “I include momentary leadership all the way to the bigger vision and calling. I really believe all of those things should be practiced all the time. I try to help students discern those little opportunities to step up and practice, practice, practice.”

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This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 01. You can subscribe to the Quarterly or buy individual copies.

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