A few weeks back I got a chance to engage with teenagers who were just preparing to join the University. Having passed their high school exams, some were still undecided on which courses to pursue in Campus. Well, I didn’t have answers to all of their questions, but at least I was able to align some courses that might fit into their passions and skills -without necessarily attaching the promise of a “BRIGHTER FUTURE” to any course. But one question I received was particularly interesting – this young man asking which course is best fit for someone who wants to become a student leader?!
Since at the back of my mind I was sure that there is no such course in particular for student leaders -although a few might come in handy- , I was still curious to know why this young man wanted to become one. His answer was short and to the point……”I want to travel” Now, this answer was relatively similar to yet another request I had previously received in my whatsapp from an old school mate. His was that he wanted me to tag him along to any youth conference I will be attending since after finishing campus he hasn’t been able to secure a job – and so he needs those “allowances given in such youth conferences to keep him going”
These two would represent a fraction of the entire youth population, across the globe, who either have misconceptions about youth leadership or are just not aware of what it entails. Looking at recent revelations across the globe, more than half of individuals falling within the youth bracket don’t know of any existence of a youth organization, or programme (including Government programmes) in their immediate environment. The uncountable organizations and programmes across the globe notwithstanding.
In this 21st Century when the youth are up in arms advocating for inclusion in various spheres, they, especially the youth leaders, should really be in a position to articulate what leadership is. And above all, demonstrate what it is, and what it is not.
This piece will not seek to answer whether youth leadership today is effecting any REAL change or whether it is just cosmetics. Rather, this piece will try to address what some youth leaders are doing wrong that the entire youth leadership is mired by misconceptions – while also trying to shed light on the real task ahead.
The first error, is elevating Conferences to an ultimate end, rather than a means to an end.
Many a times, especially in this social media age, it is normal to come across photos of young leaders attending conferences -This coupled with selfies of them with prominent personalities. As much as there is nothing wrong with this, the perception created is that one becomes a youth leader just to attend conferences and take selfies. Focus is rarely given to specific contributions by the attendees, and what happens on the ground after the conference. Truth be told, after the conclusion of most conferences, today’s leaders immediately fold the deliverables and put them in the lowest files possible.
But this is not a challenge to young leaders alone, actually, they are just borrowing it from technocrats from various spheres. Be it from Governments or other high ranking non- governmental agencies. And that is why critics today have gone ahead to brand Conferences as just “talk shops”
Having said that, as an insider in this youth leadership space, I believe conferences remain important – but focus should shift to what happens on the ground. And youth leaders should be seen on the forefront getting their hands dirty and doing the actual work. So that in the near future when one googles youth leadership, the images that pop up are not just for those attending conferences, but a blend of what leadership is about.
The second aspect, which I believe is very critical., is that Youth leadership is not about what you find on the table, rather, what you bring to the table.
Now, the request from my old school mate got me thinking. Did he really think that he was just to show up from space, attend a conference in earth and an allowance to fall from the moon into his pockets? Really? Does it work that way? Absolutely not. Actually, some youth leaders even dig into their own pockets to organize an event for the sake of the very many others they seek to influence. It is about sacrifice. And one can only sacrifice when they have already identified their PURPOSE and the route they intend to pursue.
Youth leadership is 100% what you bring to the table, every other thing like travels is just but by products. By the way, it is never promised that your travels will be paid for, sometimes you will dig into your own pockets. If you are lucky to be representing an organization that selects you to represent them at their cost -then lucky for you. Or if you have individuals or mentors who believe in you, and are able to support your travels, then lucky for you too. But no pressure, your skills, talents and commitments should be able to see you travel anyway.
Not to digress from the core business of this piece, but it is so disheartening on this day and age, to wake up in the morning with the reality that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The world being faced with so many challenges -while the entire humanity seems to be losing hope – or at least accepting defeat from the status quo. As the entire weight being rested on the shoulders of her young men and women. Be it climate change, terrorism, unemployment, poverty, exclusion and other form of prejudices. And the youth leaders being looked upon for answers by fellow youth, the older generation and the next generation.
It is imperative for youth leaders, across the globe, to change tact in addressing some of these challenges -lest they remain just part of statistics. One doesn’t remain youth forever, and those influencing change today on behalf of youth will definitely not be there tomorrow. We shouldn’t accept the simplicity of leadership just being a generational change – one generation after the other – rather, an opportunity to make a difference.
I agree that the terrain is not that easy, but remembering the words of Martin Luther King Jnr on the urgency of now, we definitely cannot afford to wait. And we surely have to keep the faith, and finish the race.
“The most important advice on leadership I can give young leaders; It’s not about you!” Rick Warren.