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Understanding the Value of Youth Leadership

Youth leadership remains improperly defined and is often disregarded in the workplace. Learn the importance and what we can do to develop youth leaders.

Youth leadership has been a hot topic for generations. However, there seems to be little done in enabling youth to be ready for leadership. We have not even properly defined what youth leadership is because we believe that the responsibilities of the youth lie somewhere in the future, not right now. This notion that youth are the leaders of tomorrow seems to rely on the assumption that the future sees the same issues that we face today as there is no way to measure the complexities of future leadership issues. We can only presume what these issues would look like and the youth will deal with them only when they must deal with them. Whereas in fact, youth leadership should actually be a never-ending succession planning exercise and a form of insurance on continuation. We need the youth to be able to handle today’s issues whilst planning for their future endeavors.

In the workplace, youth leadership is further delayed by experience deficiency. What this means is that there is a set expectation that one should have a certain number of years as a manager before they can become leaders. Youth are in a leadership competition with adults. In South Africa for example, the legal category of youth ranges from 14 to 35 years of age. However, in this category, only those who are 18 years and above are legally allowed to have formal employment. Therefore, looking at the legally allowed to work–category, if they have completed a qualification above their metric, either a college certificate or a university degree, they would mostly start their formal employment between the ages of 22 and 25. They become the most sought-after group to model into future leaders. Moreover, there is also a common phenomenon that limits youth participation and development in leadership; those with longer employment histories often look at youth in their reflection and try to direct the youth’s development into their own perspectives, mirroring their style of leadership.

So, what can we do to enable youth leadership? First, we will have to accept that experience should not be the only option that opens the door to leadership. Youth can be assessed to determine their leadership potential. There are set leadership competencies that can be found in youth and this should be the first step. If we can understand and appreciate their potential, we can then build an inclusive environment that will be conducive to their development. Furthermore, the youth of today, commonly referred to as Gen Z, has access to so much information that drives their unique outlook into the workplace and the world in general. To compare their behaviors and expertise to the previous generation where leadership is concerned would automatically disadvantage them and we will continue excluding youth from leadership. Therefore, we should not evaluate them based on these limited criteria.

First, we will have to accept that experience should not be the only option that opens the door to leadership.

What is the importance of youth leadership?

The overarching answer to this question is very simple: we need leaders right now and we need to know where this potential sits in our company. This will build confidence that you are willing to invest in the development of your most important assets, your people. If you do not invest in this, you stand a chance of losing your best people to competitors who are willing to recognize and develop youth leadership. Moreover, youth leadership is important because it benefits both spectrums of employment:

  1. For the youth themselves, developing leadership capabilities not only helps youth in their path to be professionals but also helps to boost their self-confidence and shaping their identity.
  2. For the organizations and businesses, having youth leaders means they will always have the next leaders in line when the current leaders will not be there anymore. Youth leaders are generally more technologically savvy compared to the previous generation. They also understand the current and future trends better as a result of growing up in a different era – the digital transformation age. If you want to connect with the current and emerging markets, then having the emerging generation will certainly bring an advantage to your business.

What can you do to develop youth into leaders?

1. Assess their leadership competencies and potential

It’s important to utilize an unbiased and science-based approach to assess youth leadership potential. This will give you an insight into their various development needs and you can use these to model their leadership development. The idea is not to build a replica of your current leadership, but rather enable an all-inclusive platform of leaders within your workplace.

2. Provide feedback and recognition

The youth are not oblivious to their mistakes or achievements. They are fully conscious of their shortfalls and would normally rely on their line managers or team leaders to provide input where there are shortfalls. This includes providing feedback, whether it is positive or negative, and recognizing them where their performance is exceptionally good.

3. Enable a continuous learning environment

Do not deprive your youth from learning something outside of their current expertise because you believe that they should only do what you pay them to do. That approach is very limited and discourages them from pursuing other areas of interest that may be beneficial to their growth and ultimately your company. Allowing your youth to participate in various cross-functional projects will give them exposure that they would otherwise not receive in their current roles.

Youth leadership is a complex topic of discussion that nevertheless must be had to avoid creating a poor employment experience for your employees and to ensure a future filled with vigorous leaders.

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headshot Seotlelo rapolai


Seotlelo Rapolai

Seotlelo Rapolai is a Customer Experience Specialist at SHL in South Africa and is dedicated to ensuring that our clients receive positive experiences across all our services and products. Having spent almost a decade of his professional experiences in various roles HR, Project Management, and Sales, he has experienced most aspects of what makes an organization successful and some of the behaviors associated with the successes.

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