How to Develop Young Leaders

Develop Plant Growth in Soil

Most of us have young leaders in our organizations. Some of us have a lot of young leaders in our organization. As someone with more experience, you may be wondering how to develop these young leaders to find something great in them. Here are 3 ways you can develop young leaders into great leaders to excel in your organization.

Give Them the Opportunity to Lead.

This first point should go without saying but for many organizations, the temptation is to wait until folks are in formal management or leadership roles to give young people authority. But here’s the problem with that: If you don’t give high-potential young leaders the opportunity to lead, these same young leaders will create their own opportunities for themselves right out of your organization. And before you know it, you’ve lost some of your best leaders because you thought they were “too young.” 

When you give young leaders the opportunity to lead before they are in a formal role, you are giving them an opportunity to develop a leadership skill set without the pressure of a formal manager title. It’s providing a safe place for them to learn and fail forward. So when the position does open up, these same people have already had the opportunity to stretch their leadership muscles. There is nothing worse than putting someone in a roll – by default of their older age - who has never actually led before. That person will suffer. Their team will suffer. The organization will suffer. 

Set Clear Expectations, Measurable Goals, and Defined Steps.

Most people fail or underperform not because they are unintelligent, but because what was expectations were never clearly communicated. When you communicate to a young leader what the outcome is with a clear deadline, then they know what the goal is. 

But it is also your responsibility to walk them through the process and steps of achieving the desired outcome. If you set for the young leader a goal of reaching 100 new people by the end of the year and provide zero direction or counsel outside of that stated goal, it’s on you if they fail, not them. Remember they are a young leader; they are learning. It’s on you to coach them and help them learn. 

Take, for example, a goal of increasing attendance in the student ministry by 20% in one year. The expectation is both clear and measurable and that’s a good thing. The young leader knows exactly how he or she will be measured in twelve months. But your job doesn’t stop there. You also have the responsibility to sit down with this young leader at the beginning of the twelve months to help them develop a plan and strategy for the year ahead. Ideate with them how this goal will be achieved. Define incremental action steps every month or every quarter. Have systematic check-ins to evaluate, offer counsel, or course correct. That’s all on you as someone who is leading this young person. Don’t assume that just because you set the end goal you can walk away. That’s called poor leadership and leads to unnecessary frustration on your part and on the part of the young leader – particularly when or if the goal is not met. 

Help Them Develop Self-Awareness.

One of the best things a young person can do is develop a posture of humility early on. And the easiest way for them to do this is to see you model it first. A posture of humility does several things. First, it creates a safe space for everyone on the team to offer ideas without feeling like they’ll be judged. When you have humility, you know that you don’t always have the best idea. Sometimes other people do. 

Being a person of humility also allows other people to give you feedback. Feedback can look like, “When you made that joke, were you implying that I let you down?” or, “Hey, I just wanted to follow up on a comment you made. Did I misunderstand you?” Humility lets people ask these types of clarifying questions of you without fear of being attacked. It then gives you the opportunity to apologize or clarify where needed. These are all key to having healthy self-awareness. And young leaders need this. 

When young leaders are exceptionally talented at a young age, it’s easy to get puffed up and to stop inviting feedback or listening to the advice from others. They can mistakenly think they’ve already mastered their craft and have egos larger than life. And we all know what it’s like to be around these types of people. It’s not fun. It erodes trust, stifles communication and ideation, and everyone else feels like a yes-man instead of an integral part of the team. As a leader leading young people, the worst thing a young leader can lack is self-awareness and humility. 

This is certainly a short list when it comes to developing young leaders. What are some things that you would add? 

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