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What Is Teen Leadership?

Part 2: going straight to the source.

This is the second part of a two-part series, wherein we asked our 2019 cohort of summer interns in the PADlab to share their thoughts about what teen leadership is, what adults might be missing, and how we can better facilitate teen leadership development in these formative years.

In the second part of this series, we will hear from Grace Kern, who offers her perspective on the role that sports play in early leadership development, and from Pavithra Porayath, who discusses the complicated relationship between popularity and teen leadership.

How Movement Starts Movements: A student athlete’s perspective on sports’ impact on adolescent leadership.

By Grace Kern

 Grace Kern, used with permission
Grace Kern
Source: Grace Kern, used with permission

What’s the secret of today’s top leaders? Here’s one possibility to consider: sports.

Following the advice of many, I joined my school’s girls’ track and field team as a freshman. After my sophomore year, I received an email: “You have been nominated by your coach to attend the CSL Leadership Conference.”

For a moment, I considered the possibility that the email was a mistake. I wasn’t the best one on the team by far. The credit I could give myself, however, was that I showed up every day and I had a good attitude—two key ingredients of a successful leader. I knew my coach noticed my hard work when I pulled up a chair to her presentation, and as I got up to leave, she came up to me. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, smiling. There, sitting in that classroom, I learned the importance of competitive sports in manifesting leadership positions in the workforce, specifically for minorities and women.

One fact, in particular, stuck with me from the presentation: 80% of female executives of Fortune 500 companies had played competitive sports, often at the college level. Competitive sports may help provide women the tools to rise to the top and take on roles that have been traditionally reserved for men. That’s powerful.

What do adolescents gain from participating in sports?

I believe that participation in sports increases the development of traits found in an excellent leader. During my time on the team, I have refined my ability to communicate, I have watched a reliance on goal-focused orientation shift to enhanced intrinsic motivation, and I have seen the importance of passion, dedication, and pride in leading to success.

Many resilient figures known worldwide, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Barack Obama, participated in sports during their adolescence. I personally feel that playing a sport has empowered me in a way I had never experienced before. My pride for our team and ability to communicate has helped me mentor younger teammates as they perfect the hop, step, and jump in my favorite event, the triple jump. Being part of a team allows children to have role models near their own age, and in some cases, they can even be a role model for their peers. Especially in high school, kids must use their inner drive to put in the work and take ownership of their performance.

How can we make competitive sports more accessible?

While participation in competitive sports has benefits, it is not always accessible for all youth. Girls Play Sports, for example, is a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of sports opportunities to girls in 3rd through 8th grade. Since the program was founded in Evanston, female participation in sports has surpassed male participation at Evanston Township High School, thus busting societal gender norms that often limit aspiring athletes. We urgently need passionate leaders to keep up with the issues we face. Supplying youth with the tools they need to lead could start simply with grass and a soccer ball.

Popularity Is Teaching Teens the Wrong Meaning of Leadership

By Pavithra Porayath

Pavithra Porayath, used with permission
Pavithra Porayath
Source: Pavithra Porayath, used with permission

As a teenager in high school, I can safely say that one of the biggest things teens value is popularity. While popularity can be associated with many positive outcomes, it plays a negative role in how teens choose their leaders. Teens frequently prioritize extroverted traits, such as being popular or boisterous, as features to look for in a leader. Because of this, we tend to overlook characteristics that are much more important.

How does popularity affect leadership?

Studies show that popularity becomes increasingly important to teens as they enter their high school years. When teens are dubious about whom to turn to for leadership, they fixate on the popular kid in the group, expecting them to be the best leader. Maybe we feel more comfortable following someone we know is well-liked and admired.

The selection of a leader among teenagers transpires quickly. Traits associated with popularity may take higher priority in young teens’ minds when selecting a leader. If we have the adults select the leaders, they may choose someone different. In my experience, teachers and other adult figures may instead pick the child most qualified to be a leader—often not the person everyone expects. For example, when selecting a leader for a Socratic seminar, a teacher may pick the most inventive student, which, more often than not, isn’t the most popular person in the classroom. What today’s younger teenagers don’t understand is that being sociable doesn’t necessarily equate to being a leader. Oftentimes, traits such as creativity and intelligence are overlooked by teens and aren’t considered important qualities to look for in a leader.

There are many cases in which adolescent popularity grants a person a title. The choosing of the Homecoming King and Court, the head of a peer group, and the recipient for an elected award are all examples where popularity matters more than it should. A common situation that many teens find themselves in is when their peers pick the most loquacious student to be the speaker in a group presentation without giving anyone else a chance to volunteer.

Because teens turn to the most popular or the loudest kid, they are getting used to seeing the person with the most followers or the loudest voice rise as a leader. This way of choosing a leader may create a misconception that the best leaders are those with the loudest voice and most supporters when in reality, a strong leader should be someone who sets a good example for others to look up to, whether they are popular or not.

Is there a solution?

Although popularity in adolescence is temporary, its effect on leadership may have implications for the long run. When the ‘popular’ kids are always designated leaders, other kids miss out on opportunities to rise as a leader. Adolescents who never had the chance to be leaders while growing up might struggle to develop leadership skills later on in life.

As an introverted teenager, I think the best way to fix this problem is to give us opportunities to rise as leaders amid a different set of peers. Having teens meet outside of school hours, especially at leisure activities, and giving them the chance to be leaders in a group of unfamiliar people could allow them to become leaders without worrying about popularity the way they do at school. This, hopefully, can rechannel teens and teach them that leadership is not just a popularity contest.


Note: We are very big on leveraging the hierarchical organization structure of most research labs to maximize opportunities for both learning mentorship and being mentored. Two of our undergraduate researchers, Becca Bruns and Kimberly Ortega, provided amazing hands-on mentorship this summer, working with our HS interns as they learned about the process of scientific blogging and worked to craft their own ideas into this format. Thanks also go out to Becca and Kimberly for all they did to facilitate these posts!