After a recent hike, during our debrief, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘helping others!’
I asked the boy to explain what he meant and the discussion continued further around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me. What a profound statement! Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that point of view. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way, more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.
However, when working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through a straight forward comment of one of the students, I immediately found this to be a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership than any other method I’ve come across before. We continued to run with it and the discussion turned out to be a very productive and meaningful one for the students who had come up with the idea, as well as for all the other students involved.
Often leadership gets confused with the sense of largess military or political leadership. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, further confuses the subject as neither of these projected figures are true leaders. Often for students it’s even harder trying to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with these political figures in the news every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have somehow risen to power and often obtained their position through dubious means. Whilst this is a misconception about leadership, it’s an easily made mistake.
The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than any of its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.
However, for many, leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp and it’s often confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between qualities of a leader and traits of a manager. Much of this comes from experience and context and many students might also only see leadership as what teachers do. They could see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team. Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in that position is actively helping others.
If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (of which there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others. This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.
As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.
Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one to develop leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.
Helpership starts the conversation in an assessable way so students can begin to understand that, unlike the political egotists of the world, leadership is not about you. It’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.
So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students to start to really understand what leadership is all about.