One of my favorite participant comments I received after a youth training workshop is:

“Taught me I am not only going to be a leader but I am a leader now because I am influencing people every day.”

A great youth leadership workshop can help young people find their power and voice so they can fully step into the role of leadership and inhabit that role for a lifetime. After conducting workshops across the country for the past 15 years, here are a few of my guidelines for a great youth leadership program and workshop:

See young people as leaders NOW
The adults working with young leaders need a sincere and solid belief that young people are not just the “leaders of tomorrow” but are leaders right now.

In some ways, leadership is at its highest level with young people. Leadership is about influence and young people are influenced more by their peers than anyone else. So every young person has the opportunity to influence the people around them every day. Leadership is about becoming aware of influence and consciously deciding how and when to use influencing skills.

A well-designed leadership program can help young people expand their leadership beyond their personal sphere to benefit their community and the world. Young people can begin to see themselves as holding their community and world in trust and find their place in serving the common good.

The best leadership programs give people options to make tangible contributions to their community. Allowing young people to select where and how to serve and plan their service is a vital part of developing leadership skills that impact the common good.

Use good adult learning models
Yes, adult learning. My leadership workshops with young people are very similar to my leadership work with adults. An excellent workshop, whether for adults or young people, will make the materials relevant for participants, respect the time of attendees, invite people to share their experience, and use real-world examples. While these guidelines grow out of the work of Malcolm Knowles and other early adult learning thinkers, they apply equally for young people.

These ideas take shape in my workshops with lots of involvement, many structured activities, ample time for discussion, and very little lecture. No more than 10% of the workshop time should be devoted to the workshop leader(s) talking in front of the group. With well-structured activities and lively facilitated discussions, young people are more than capable of discovering their own answers.

Keep participants moving and engaged
Structured activities are the key to keeping energy and enthusiasm high during a youth workshop. Engaging conversations can be wonderful, but a high percentage of young people (and adults!) will quickly drift off mentally during long discussions or lectures. An activity, followed by a short discussion with questions that lead to key points, then another activity followed by a short discussion that leads to key points…is the rhythm of a great workshop.

This need for engagement should be fulfilled from the very start of a workshop. Many times, I inherit a group after an opening speaker has droned on for an hour or so. The young people are near comatose after the experience and they seldom remember a thing that was said. If you want the mayor or some other important person to address the group, make sure they keep the remarks short and upbeat.

Have high expectations
The greatest activities, wonderful content, and a great pace will all fall flat if the workshop leader doesn’t have high expectations of participants. The sincere belief that young people are ready to think deeply, lead, and make significant contributions is essential to success. Young people can smell a condescending attitude and most will respond by politely paying attention and disregarding ideas.

Have fun
The brain learns better when learning is enjoyable. Good structured activities are again the key. One of my favorite activities with young people is juggling. Juggling and the learning to juggle process are wonderful metaphors for many leadership and life lessons. The group has a blast, learns, and is impressed that they get to keep three cool juggling scarves at the end of the process.

Keep adults and young people on equal footing
Many youth leadership workshops have a few adults who participate in the group. Because adults are conditioned to lead in such situations and young people are conditioned to accept adults’ leadership, it’s important the adults resist the temptation to run the group. Adults should be active in the group, but also be sure the majority of the influence is exerted by young people.

Remaining on an equal footing means that if adults participate in any activities, they participate in all activities. I’ve often had to do some arm twisting with adults who want to sit out the structured activities that look like silly games. When all the adults remove themselves from an activity, it sends a strong message to the young people that the activity is somehow for kiddies. Structured activities are for learning, not just play.

I sometimes have “elders” attend a portion of a youth development workshop to conduct Appreciative Inquiry interviews with young people. These interviews are structured to explore life experiences and find the high points in the lives of the young people and the adults. For the activity to work its magic, the young people and elders interview each other as equals with the same questions used and the same time allotted. Both are able to learn equally from the others life experience, even if one has experienced life for 80 years and the other for 18.

Early in my time of conducting youth leadership workshops, I remember a young woman saying, “Adults need to start treating young people as candles to be lit and not vessels to be filled.” A respectful, engaging, and fun workshop for young people can help light flames of hope, energy, and leadership that the world desperately needs. 

Comments from young people in John’s workshops:

“Really great, thank you for teaching us how to juggle and also the animal activity was fun.”

“I never thought I could juggle but with John’s advise and instructions, I found out that I can do anything my mind wants to. Thanks so much.”

“It’s been fun learning teambuilding skills along with juggling.”

“He is a fun instructor that has a lot to teach.”

“Felt good to learn how to juggle.”

“Enthusiastic. A great teacher and speaker.”

John Steinbach has been an independent trainer, consultant, coach and speaker for almost 20 years. In addition to his work with corporation and not-for-profits, John was a part of the development team at Community Partnerships with Youth that created Youth as Trustees, Youth in Governance, and Youth as Philanthropists workshops and materials with support from the Lilly Endowment. John has conducted youth leadership workshops across America. 

More about John and JP Consultants, Inc.

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