How to Develop Leadership Skills as a Student (Advice From a College Student)

...experts suggest that good communication is one of the best ways to build your “leadership brand.” That means speaking up about the causes you care about and taking action to...

By Carlee Strathmann

Are you looking to kickstart your journey to becoming a leader? Here’s a guide for learning more about leadership and developing strategies to change the world—or at least get started.

*As part of our ongoing work to #ReThinkHighSchool and prepare our students for the 21st century, we decided to create a series of long-form posts that seek to elucidate the college and career process for high school students. In the first installment of this series, we looked at how to get an internship. We’re here this week with more advice from college students in the XQ network—check out this post to learn how to develop leadership skills in high school. 

Leadership. Take a second and think about leaders you admire. They may be teachers, other students, celebrities, or elected officials. Once you have them in your mind, close your eyes, and ask yourself:

  • What makes these people good leaders?
  • What about them inspires you to follow their lead?
  • How can you use their stories to inspire yours?

Now open your eyes, and look in the mirror. You can be a leader, too. Keep reading to see exactly how to become the leader you want to be.

What Is leadership?

Leadership doesn’t look the same every time. In fact, it rarely does. You’re probably familiar with many examples of famous leaders from history books, the news, your community, etc. We remember these leaders for their accomplishments. And sometimes we remember leaders for their failures.

Effective leadership is not unique to iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi, who paved the way for a better tomorrow. For instance, when I think of leaders and leadership, I also think of nurses who work tirelessly to care for our sick and elderly, artists who lend their creativity to challenge the way we think, and community members who stand up to protest for social change. Leaders help foster new ideas and growth within their communities. The truth is that there’s a leader in each of us.

But let’s start by breaking down the idea of leadership. On its most basic level, leadership is defined as the capacity to lead and generate a following.

The definition of leadership speaks to its core sentiment and tells us that you don’t need a fancy title to be considered a leader. You don’t have to be the student body president to be a leader at your school. You just need to be someone who cares about a cause enough to ask others to join you.

But what does effective leadership look like? Y Combinator—one of the top startup incubators in the country that funds companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit— summarizes foundational characteristics all great leaders have in common:

  • Great leaders have exceptional communication skills, which enables them to share their vision of the future with others.
  • They are able to motivate others to get on board and work hard to achieve communal goals.
  • Great leaders embody a mission beyond themselves and refrain from letting their ego get in the way.
  • They are good listeners, who are willing to respond to feedback from others and admit when they’ve made a mistake. Their eagerness to learn and commitment to continuous improvement fuels their productivity.

To clarify, sticking to your mission does not mean being inflexible to change. Great leaders are those who adapt to the environment and the changing needs of their stakeholders. In fact, great leaders need to be open and willing to change.

Sticking to the status quo lends itself to vulnerability. Change is inevitable. So, we can sit back and wait or we can be proactive and stand up to disrupt the status quo.

The Importance of Developing Leadership Skills for 21st Century Learners

Taking on a leadership role is a great opportunity to build real-world skills.

Building out human skills is essential to this historical moment. We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. Traditional manufacturing and industrial practices are now obsolete as companies look to optimize efficiency and minimize labor costs through smart technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Given this shift in the nature of work, it’s becoming even more important to build and expand your repertoire of skills.

Harvard Business Review experts say the shift to AI enhances the need for real-world, soft skills “such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement.” These skills are more challenging to quantify on your transcript. There is no clear way to measure someone’s ability to adapt. Nonetheless, the aforementioned soft skills are undeniably applicable to work and social environments.

In addition to adapting to work opportunities in the 21st century, soft skills like leadership are important in the college application process. When applying to college in a saturated group of students, it’s essential to make yourself stand out with more than just your grades. Building out your leadership portfolio is a great way to distinguish yourself from other candidates. There is no one best application, so it’s up to you to paint your story.

One best practice to boost your portfolio is to take an active role in a club or organization. It’s a great way to concretely demonstrate your commitment. But, you also have to “talk the talk.” Forbes experts suggest that good communication is one of the best ways to build your “leadership brand.” That means speaking up about the causes you care about and taking action to find solutions.

No matter your interest, getting involved as a leader allows you to discover where you thrive and where you need to improve. That’s why it’s so important as a leader to develop a growth mindset. In fact, Harvard experts say adopting a growth mindset is crucial to becoming an effective leader. Someone with a growth mindset believes that there is no limit to personal development.

“Students who have a growth mindset experience challenges as the way to learn and improve. They learn and achieve at higher levels, even when they start out at the same place as those with fixed mindsets.”

– Michele Cahill Senior Advisor, XQ Institute 

A leadership position is a great way to exercise your strengths and explore your interests. Ask yourself, “What makes me excited?” Is it volunteering to help others? Serving as the school president? Starting a club? Giving a speech at graduation? Whatever it is, establishing yourself as a leader is a great way to explore your interests on a deeper level.

Leadership Skills and Assets

Time management, goal-setting, communication, decision-making, advocating for and defending a cause, accountability, and networking are all key assets to a great leader.

  • Time management:  A leader must be willing to take on a variety of responsibilities. Holding a leadership position often requires rapid turnarounds. Knowing when to prioritize certain tasks over others can sometimes be a challenge. However, deadlines help to ensure that oneself and others complete tasks in a timely manner.
    Pro tip: Plan ahead and leave room for unanticipated interruptions. Employ a method for managing your time, such as a calendar or checklist.
  • Goal-Setting:  Leaders set goals to guide their progress. They see problems as opportunities to solve and break up their vision into smaller milestones. They evaluate their progress based on the milestones they’ve reached. And they look for creative and innovative ways to achieve their goals.
    Pro tip: Set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Reasonable, Timely) goals.
  • Communication:  In an era of technological domination, communication takes many forms: speech, text, photography, video, body language, etc. No matter the platform, effective communication is key in spreading your message and generating a following.
    Pro tip: Share your goals with your network. Remain open and receptive to feedback in order to avoid stagnation. When preparing content, consider your audience. Speak or write using language that your audience will understand. According to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, speaking from the inside enables people to rationalize with what you are saying. When seeking to change behavior, you will need a little more buy-in than facts and statistics.
  • Decision-making:  While leadership and power are not one and the same, leaders often have the power to make decisions that affect a variety of stakeholders. Each day, we make decisions—many of these decisions are inconsequential. Yet, over time, these decisions come together to contribute to the big-picture vision.
    Pro tip: Listen to the voices of your stakeholders and consider the impact of your decisions. Before jumping to any quick decisions, make sure you understand the whole story. So, while each decision may not seem to matter at the moment, make each decision count and be ready to defend it or develop a plan to make amendments.
  • Advocating for or Defending a Cause:  Leaders frequently play a role in advocating for a cause or defending a decision. They have the opportunity to go against the grain and speak up for marginalized voices.
    Pro tip: Whatever your decision, consider the facts and utilize evidence in making your claims. And do it with conviction!
  • Accountability:  Using a system of checks and balances can help maintain the accountability necessary to achieve your goals successfully. And when something goes wrong, you can provide appropriate feedback and make improvements for your next move.
    Pro tip: Make sure you establish a system of accountability for yourself and your team. And be consistent. Hold yourself to the same standards as your teammates. Evaluate your progress towards your goals on a regular basis.
  • Networking:  Networking is a skill that will be important throughout your leadership journey. But, when you’re just getting started, it is especially important. Your network is your team of supporters and advocates. Once you have a team of supporters, your personal progress will become a joint mission. Social connections are tools that you can use to navigate through difficult situations. When you encounter a challenge, it’s likely that others have experienced that same challenge. They may have advice or be able to offer the best practices they employed while navigating through that challenge. Join the conversation about how to network on Rethink Together.
    Pro tip: Research topics that excite you. Find out who the experts are in the field. Who are the people and organizations doing similar work in your area? Call them or send them a message to express your interest in the material and let them know you would like to connect.

Mastering these skills is fundamental to becoming a resilient leader. Despite the level of distinction among these skills, they work best when you align them as part of a coherent framework. Leadership experts Michael Fullan and Lyle Kirtman dive deeper into the subject in their book, “Coherent Leadership: Forging Clarity from Complexity.” It outlines characteristics of effective leaders:

Coherence Framework ComponentsCharacteristics of Highly Effective Leaders 
Focusing DirectionChallenges the Status Quo
Cultivating Collaborative CulturesBuilds trust through clear communications and expectations
Focuses on team over self
Creates a commonly owned plan
Deepening LearningBuilds external networks/partnerships
Securing AccountabilityIs committed to continuous improvement of self and the organization
Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results

The Faces of Student Leadership

It may seem that some people were born to be leaders. Many of those, though, had to face a number of challenges along the way. You may have heard the stories of students like Malala Yousafzi, Greta Thurnberg, and others. Malala seeks gender equity and Greta gives a voice to the planet.

These students noticed an issue they cared about and worked hard to address it by creating the change they wanted to see in the world.

Meet Student Leaders Across the Country

  1. Alliyah Logan is a youth advocate from the Bronx. She amplifies the voices of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in her community, especially the voices of those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Check out her blog post to read more about how she’s using her voice to make a change.
  2. Josh Stern is a writer and activist from New York City. He uses his voice to advocate for and break down biases about students with disabilities. Check out his blog to learn more about his take on how to best support students with disabilities like himself during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  3. Grace Nesbitt is a public figure on Instagram who uses her own battle with mental illness to inspire others to love themselves for who they are. Check out her blog post to learn more about her 7-year journey toward embracing herself and building confidence.
  4. Jerome Foster II is a climate activist, the founder of the Climate Reporter, and a former intern for the late Representative John Lewis—and these are only a few of his accomplishments, all before graduating high school. Check out his feature as one of the four Changemakers of Tomorrow for GapKids’ “BE THE FUTURE” Campaign.

Leadership Activities for High School Students

Here are ideas from Positive Psychology for getting involved as a leader in your school and community:

  • Participate in student government
  • Join or start a club
  • Get involved in sports teams or other after-school activities
  • Find volunteering opportunities
  • Get an internship
  • Complete a passion project

Want to do good in the world and inspire people? That’s the first step to joining the next generation of leaders. As a young leader, you bring unique, new ideas. Your fresh perspective is a toolkit for change. Let your dreams guide you.

Developing strong leadership skills will not only enhance your role as a member of society but will also help improve your ability to make a difference in your own life and the lives of others. Once you develop the skills necessary to lead, you can apply them however you want. Try looking to the XQ Learner Goals as a guide to develop leadership skills:

  • Become a master of fundamental literacies
  • Learn foundational knowledge
  • Be an original thinker in an uncertain world
  • Be a generous collaborator
  • Commit to being a learner for life

Strategies and Activities for Becoming a Student Leader

Start by defining your purpose

Part of the leadership journey is exploring your driving forces. Here are a few steps you can take to help define your purpose:

  1. Explore what motivates you and what you would like to do or change.
  2. While you develop your vision, look into areas of need.
  3. Find out where you feel most connected and explore your role in meeting those needs.
  4. Define your aspirations and devise an agenda to get started.

“Ask yourself what do I need or want to come out of this situation, and does that seem reasonable and attainable?”

Nicole Smith

A clear purpose is the foundation you need to inspire people to do good and create positive outcomes. No matter how big your dream is, keep your vision in front of you. Let your “why” guide you. Draw on your own experiences. Dive deep into topics you find interesting. And that passion will drive your behavior and propel you forward toward reaching your goals.

Develop Your Leadership Skills Through Activities and Practice

Build Your Team

Imagine how much you can achieve when you have the collective capacity of a group of individuals who share your vision. Having a team does not mean each member needs to agree at all times. But it’s important that your teammates share similar grounding principles; make sure the “why” behind your work aligns. 

Each team member has a set of experiences that they bring to the table. Remember that diverse perspectives bring diverse solutions to the table. The best teammates are those who complement your skill set and fill in the gaps in your expertise.

As a leader, it may feel that there is a lot of pressure to have everything under control. Take time to reflect on your own self-awareness to ensure you are tending to your own needs. Also, feel free to ask for help. Mentors are great resources for sharing your reflections, holding you accountable, and empowering you to meet your goals. Building a relationship with a mentor can also provide opportunities for self-improvement to help you grow.

Embrace Challenges

When you are first getting involved in a new project, it can be easy to let the fear of rejection or failure get you down. Don’t give up! In fact, some of the greatest leaders are successful because they embraced failure and used what they learned to improve in future endeavors.

Ever heard of Elon Musk? Not only is he the mastermind behind companies like PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, but he’s also an expert in the field of failure. When he started Paypal, critics rated it one of the 10 worst business concepts. The first and second rockets he launched exploded. The third severely failed. People didn’t believe in him. At one point, Musk even confessed that the Tesla Roadster was a disaster.

Being a leader also means learning how to cope with failure and how to persevere—no matter what people say. The first step is to believe in yourself. Then utilize your team to help work toward your shared goal.

Set Up a Campaign

If you’re seeking to pursue a specific goal, you will likely need the support of others to make it happen. That’s why creating a campaign is a helpful tool for leaders to raise awareness and build support for their cause.

In the words of Simon Sinek, “If you don’t know why you do what you do, and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people to vote for you, or buy something from you, or, more importantly, be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do.” 

Here are some tips to set up your campaign:

  • Raise awareness
    Be clear about the issues you want to address and why. Put up posters, post on social media, give a speech in front of a group. Get people talking. Word-of-mouth advertising is free and a great way to spread excitement and generate involvement for your project.
  • Identify your audience
    If you want to be a leader, it’s important to develop a trusting relationship with the people you seek to lead. You’ll want to figure out who your primary audience is. Get to know the needs of your audience and let them know how you intend to meet their needs.
  • Tell your story
    Share your story and communicate your morals and values with your audience. Even if you can’t connect with them in person, use technology and social media to form those relationships. For inspiration, check out how Roxie Richner, an organizer, storyteller, and student, tells her story on her website.
  • Ask for feedback
    Engage in conversations with your audience to ensure they understand what you are trying to communicate. Pay attention to how your audience reacts to your messages. Most importantly, ask your network how you can improve so that you can discover different ways to reach your goals and overcome challenges.
  • Keep it professional
    As a leader, you are a public figure. When speaking up about a particular topic, everything you say or post or share will be a part of your personal brand. So, be mindful of how others will perceive your messages. Choose your language wisely with a deep consideration for your audience and the broader community.

What’s Next?

Ready to take the big leap to embark on your leadership journey?

If you haven’t found your spark or passion yet, the best way to figure it out is to engage in and explore as many opportunities as possible. Reach out to people who you admire. Ask questions. Conduct a mini-interview.

Here are some sample interview questions to help you get started:

  • How did you get to where you are today?
  • What are some challenges you have faced? And how did you overcome them?
  • Who did you look up to when you were my age?

Once you establish yourself as a leader, keep in touch with your mentor and network. The scope of networking is boundless. Ask your parents, teachers, and peers to connect you with people they know! Stay in touch with your teachers from high school even after you graduate. You never know when you may need to ask for letters of recommendation along the way. Many great leaders have earned their positions by reaching out to mentors in their own communities.