Leading as a Young Person

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By: Angelica Brice, The Catholic University of America

High school and college both are a time of transitioning leadership with increasing responsibility and more clearly defined roles. This transition can be challenging as many positions involve learning new practical and social skills both in relatively inconsistent extracurricular settings. 

Taking on a leadership role at a time as chaotic as this seems not just improbable, but unwise. Up to this point, leaders are generally older than you are, more experienced than you are, or seem to have their lives together in ways you know you don’t. While there are many possible objections to the leadership of young adults, below five leading issues are explored to see how good leaders handle these challenges. 

1. I’m too young. 

While students are not the most obvious choices for leadership roles, they are frequently very good choices. Their energy and enthusiasm are rarely matched. They have the advantage of approaching problems with a fresh perspective and personal experience very different from other students, let alone their teachers. While other disparities can be quickly remedied (lack of knowledge can be learned and experience can be gained) age comes only with time, time that is not given back. Therefore, appreciate the time that you are in now. Thank God for what He has given you, including the opportunities for growth and development that may be present in your life. High school in particular is a challenging time of new opportunities and responsibilities as you learn to drive, get a license, and start driving yourself and others. Watch for how God is calling you to take these responsibilities seriously. 

Many saints were young leaders. Some led in formal ways such as Joan of Arc who inspired and led in part the counter attack of the French against the English or Clelia Barbieri who founded a religious order at age 21. Many more led by the example of their lives on both ends of the spectrum. Maria Goretti gave her life as a martyr to a violent death while Thérèse of Lisieux lived a quiet life of small, often unnoticed, acts of charity. There are many ways to participate in less direct leadership roles to help prepare you for those roles of greater responsibility. 

Be grateful for every season of life and use each age’s gifts for the service of God. The Holy Father challenges you to use your youth well as he noted in Christus Vivit, “If the years of your youth are to serve their purpose in life, they must be a time of generous commitment, whole-hearted dedication, and sacrifices that are difficult but ultimately fruitful” (CV, 108). 

2. I don’t have enough time. 

Even though youth is often considered a disadvantage in leadership roles, you have the same 24 hours as the most experienced CEO or tenured professor. This means you can prioritize anything you choose. At the same time, there are a variety of demands on your time. Even if you may not have the time to take on a direct leadership role, you can become a leader in settings you are already in. Lead your classmates or roommates, lead a campus ministry to Newman Center program based on your gifts, or even simply lead by the example of your life, centered on Christ and open to His will. 

3. I’m not confident responding to my friends’ questions. 

In some settings in your life, you are likely “the Catholic friend” who is expected to have all the answers to everything the Pope or a bishop says on the news or every last teaching the Church has ever pronounced in 2000 years. It is understandably upsetting not to have a perfect response to every question your friends may ask. That is perfectly acceptable. Don’t let this uncertainty stop you from pursuing a leadership role. Every leader had a first day on the job, handled a situation he wasn’t prepared for, or was confronted with a problem he didn’t know how to solve. Good leaders recognize when they need help and know where to turn for that help. In this situation, you may respond by directing the person to a list of reliable resources such as the websites of the USCCB, Catholics Come Home, or Formed. Additionally, you may also recommend they speak with their parish priest, spiritual director, campus minister, or another trusted authority. 

4. I’m not experienced enough. 

There is certainly something to be said for inexperience and the proper discernment of gifts and talents. It is a demonstration of good humility to not claim to have all the answers. However, it is your responsibility to grow and develop those talents as they are gifts from God which He gave each person to cultivate in the service of His kingdom. In order to develop those talents, they must be practiced. Experienced is gained largely “on the job” through real encounters leading other people. While every leader has a first day, the best leaders have many first days over the course of their lives and are open to new learned experiences. Every day is a fresh chance to make meaningful connections. Experience may also be gained from observing others, reading about the lives and practices of successful leaders. Popular leaders today are often admired because they make a lot of money or have so many followers on social media. Choose leaders to follow who prioritize values that you share. 

Part of the call to leadership is in leading others to Christ. That goal can be achieved in a variety of ways which are not immediately recognizable as leadership roles. For example, consider assuming an unofficial leadership role in class or around campus by modeling Christian virtue. In other words, lead by example. This is a form of leadership that is always available and always within one’s control. I may not be able to control others, but I can control how I respond to their needs and desires. 

5. I don’t have enough support. 

No leader can lead truly alone very long without burning out. Every leader, every person, needs support to be effective in almost any area of life. 

Leaders, due to their responsibility for guiding others, must seek support both in the context of their leadership, but also in the context of their personal lives. Everyone needs to be cared for at least part of the time. This is not a free pass to dump your problems on the next passerby. You are still be responsible for yourself after-all. But this does not mean you can disregard your legitimate needs. Develop several close confidants and mentors, whom you trust, preferably with a range in their ages and professional development stages. This may look like a teacher, school counselor, peer group, siblings, parents, or other community leaders. Developing this support system will give you the best spectrum to asses where you are, how you’re doing, and how you can be a more developed person and effective leader. The best of any confidants you can have is Christ. 

Leaders do not step up from being followers by abandoning their former support systems from their previous group. Rather they develop and maintain a support system, especially while leading, based on personal connection with others, self-reflection, and prayer. Only on this platform can a leader overcome the challenges of inexperience to become an effective and inspiring leader at any age. Leadership takes on many forms over the course of life. Though young people are not always the expected choice for leadership, they bring unique skills and talents of their own combined with unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. In addition to the more obvious leadership opportunities as club officers, team captains, or service trip coordinators, consider helping with a ministry in the local parish or stepping up to take a more active role in the personal and spiritual formation of your friends. No gesture is too small for a start and has the potential for major positive community development in the future. As Pope St. John Paul the Great said, “Today Christ is asking each of you the same question: do you love me? He is not asking you whether you know how to speak to crowds, whether you can direct an organization or manage an estate. He is asking you to love him. All the rest will ensue. In fact, walking in Jesus’ footsteps is not immediately expressed in things to do or say, but first of all in loving him, in staying with him, in totally accepting him into one’s life.”

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