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  • Writer's pictureMichael Walter

Scaffolded leadership - Strategies to support the development of young leaders

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

“That’s not what I think you need.” I was at Bunnings with my housemate Maddi trying to find washers to fix our spinning tap. A kind and talkative older man was giving us advice about how we should fix our tap handle. Nice advice, but we knew better.

2 hours later we returned to Bunnings, tail between our legs seeking “O-rings”. It’s amazing how many parts make up a tap!

Back at home, I grabbed my 72 piece toolkit and began fiddling with the tap handle. My housemate Miranda found me 40 minutes later sitting defeated next to the unfixed shower tap, watching plumbing Youtube tutorials on the closed toilet. Kindly she said it might be time to call the plumber.

2 weeks later our friendly Northcote kerchief wearing plumber arrived. I asked him how he fixed the handle and he told me he just replaced the whole thing. It seemed that glue had come unstuck. He didn’t fix it, he replaced it.

It was quite a journey. I learned lots of things, but really just needed some sage advice from an expert (i.e. the tap handle is broken, it can’t be fixed). We can only get so far alone, and sometimes a little bit of instruction can do wonders for our development.

In this blog post I’m going to explore the benefits of scaffolding leadership for young people. In most other facets of our lives we have guidance on how we are progressing. We receive feedback on our essays and marks on our maths tests. Our parents guide us in how to cook a Bechamel sauce and our Grandma tells us off for mispronouncing ‘comparable’. After a sporting match a coach tells us ways that we could improve and we work on discrete skills. Leadership is the same. We learn a lot from the act of leading, but we can learn a huge amount more when our experience is coupled with feedback, modelling and coaching.

This article might interest you if you are supporting young adults in their leadership (particularly student leaders, and young employees). I’ve thought of some strategies which may help you to form them and support them in their roles.

Learn by experience and instruction

We can learn a lot through figuring things out on our own. However, sometimes we just need some instruction. Like my story above, I spent hours trying to fix the tap handle but I just needed a plumber to say, “It can’t be fixed, it’s broken.” We don’t know what we don’t know so it can be tremendously helpful to receive feedback and/or instruction from someone who has more experience. Once we overcome that hurdle we can carry on on our own and continue to develop (until we get stumped again!)

How might this look in practice?

  • Create a culture where your leaders feel safe to ask questions.

  • Provide regular positive and constructive feedback so they can continue to grow and develop a growth mindset.

  • Schedule a check-in where they can talk through their plans and thinking for their projects.

  • Have a set agenda for this check-in so it’s expected that you will chat about areas of improvement and challenges but also about successes. Sometimes we need to be prompted to talk about our achievements.

Frame the leadership roles as opportunities to learn and grow

I was fortunate to grow up attending holiday camps and then leading on them from 15 - 22. As a teenager and a young adult I learned so much about working with people by working with kids. There are some universal truths that don’t change no matter how old you become. We all want to belong, feel safe, have friends, and contribute in some way.

The camps created a genuine scaffold for leadership. As a 10 year old you admired the 18 year olds and watched as they explained the games and led the chants. You would think, “I could do that one day.” As a 15 year old you were given the opportunity to explain a game and lead a chant, then you were given the responsibility to manage the tuck shop and support the older leaders in looking after the dorms. As you gained more experience there were other roles, like leading the morning activities and supporting a team of 6 volunteers. After a few camps you would progress to leading the night activities. Finally, after a number of years you were given the responsibility of coordinating the whole camp and supporting all the leaders. The great thing about this process was that you gradually increased your responsibility as you increased in experience and skill. The self-esteem of being given the responsibility of leading tuckshop contributed to the confidence to step into the growth zone. Eventually, this confidence would lead to the young person taking on more and more responsibility and growing as an individual. I still think back to experiences from running camps when I am working in the office.

How might this look in practice?

  • Consider leadership development as a long term pursuit. Don’t punish your young leaders if they fail, but see it as a learning opportunity. Once they have this confidence, you won’t believe the things they will be able to do.

  • Consider all the things that need to be done in your context. Could some of these tasks and projects be completed by a younger person? Could you take a risk and provide a student with an opportunity to grow and develop their leadership skills?

  • Think about your current roles. What sorts of things do you expect of your student leaders? What kinds of opportunities could you provide to younger students so they can gradually increase in their skill to prepare them for more challenging roles?

  • Do you have a plan in place so students who have lower confidence can be encouraged to lead? These are skills that are great for everyone to learn. I was a shy kid, but thanks to the opportunities in camps I was able to develop my confidence which led me to become a confident adult.

Managing energy and anchors throughout the year

I remember in year 12 having been appointed the Social Justice Captain and being super excited for the year and the things we could do. While we achieved a number of things (like a social justice week and a number of fundraisers) it did feel a little disappointing. A way to overcome this natural flow of energy that happens in all projects is to do a broad planning session at the beginning of the year. In this session you can explore all the things that the student leadership team would like to achieve. In the brainstorming space, get everything out. It can be really helpful to give all your students Post-it notes and they can write a single idea per note. Once you’ve exhausted the ideas, group similar ideas together. Then give each student two small stickers which they can vote for their favourite ideas. You will very quickly find out what the most popular ideas are. This planning session will help the team to take a broad view and perhaps discern what is feasible to achieve alongside their other commitments. By plotting these activities on the calendar, and creating a schedule for preparation for the events/projects you will also provide a structure to ensure everything gets done. Simply completing these tasks will provide more energy for more activities. This process will also aid the reflective process, having the year mapped out and seeing everything that was achieved at the end will be very satisfying.

How might this look in practice?

  • Create a broad plan for the year early (even in October/November the year before).

  • Flag early if the Student Leadership Team has over-extended themselves or not provided enough space for planning among their other commitments.

  • Book activities to look forward to. I think of these as anchors. For many years I was involved in a community group. We noticed that after weekends away together with talks and activities we were always much more motivated. Every year we booked three events 4 months apart so we’d always get a boost when we needed it.

  • Use tools to keep track of multiple priorities and projects. We like to use a number of different methods. We have a project spreadsheet which provides a broad scope of the year, Asana lists which gives greater detail about who is doing what and when actions are due and we use the online calendar for any secured and booked events. Our working memory can only hold so much, so it’s important to have a system to capture it all.

Templates are the cogs that keep the machine moving

I recently created a resource for the volunteers of a NFP who work with children. Together we created a to do list about how to effectively plan and lead camps and activities. Rather than writing a multipage handbook with lots of information, we wrote a to-do list and meeting agendas for the sorts of things the volunteers needed to do at different stages. This was coupled with a column with Risk FAQs that linked to another document with the answers. The beauty of creating a template is that mental space is freed to be more creative. You can enter the meeting and rather than spending 10 minutes working out what to focus on, you can use the template to guide you. It is also a way of capturing emerging practice and knowledge for future leaders.

When organising an event there are certain things that you will always want to discuss and plan, i.e. budget, capacity of venue, number of attendees, promotion, catering, photography etc. The timeline for organising an event is often quite clear (and for someone who has done it a lot, obvious). However, if you’ve never organised a large event you might not realise that you need to send “save the dates” 3 months in advance, or ask about budget in May, or get approval a year beforehand. This kind of forethought comes with practice and experience and it can be really helpful for a younger leader to be given this guidance early so it doesn’t fall in a heap leading to a very negative and stressful experience. True, there is a place for trial and error, a lot of learning can result from this. However, you also want the experience to be positive so they don’t leave feeling like they are not capable. It’s a fine balance, the template can be a guide that they can follow and adapt. In fact this is a good strategy as through talking through the template can provide the younger leader to make improvements and other suggestions to what would need to get done. As the mentor you can provide structures (such as a fortnightly check in), and ask questions to prompt thinking around what’s feasible. The rest is left up to them to learn from their experience.

How might this look in practice?

  • Create to do lists with timelines for common activities. This might be for events, or fundraising activities. I would often create a list in Asana detailing the tasks that needed to occur in the lead up to any event that I could duplicate whenever we had a new event. Obviously every event is unique, so I’d add in any extra details.

  • Provide speech templates. It can be a godsend to have a structure to work within, especially if you’re new to public speaking. As we develop in our skills it’s easy to assume basic things like sending an email or chairing a meeting are easy. However we all learned these at some point and it’s good to model practice either by sending an example of an email you’ve sent in the past, or providing a structure for presenting.

  • As the building becomes stable scaffolds are removed. As the mentor, it’s really important to recognise when your mentee has developed the skills and the ability to learn independently. When this happens you should pull away and support them to develop in other ways or alternatively support them to find another mentor who can provide them the guidance they need for their next learning journey!

We have developed a year long program called “Project Santiago” to support school leaders to successfully lead in their school. Included in the program is:

  • Training in leadership skills.

  • Support to plan their year.

  • Support to develop projects that contribute to their school and local community.

  • Access to school leaders from other schools.

  • Mentoring and coaching.

Are you looking for support in developing a student leadership program in your school? We are experts in developing a leadership culture and support students and teachers in a fun, professional and authentic way.

Photo credits

Photo by Ryan Kwok on Unsplash


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