Educational leadership is changing

16 November 2016

University of Waikato Associate Professor Dr Rachel McNae says young people are accessing leadership in different ways.

University of Waikato Associate Professor Dr Rachel McNae says young people are accessing leadership in different ways.

Schools are often seen as prime places for young people to learn about leadership. But is the way we're supporting young people into leadership experiences working? 

Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership Research at the University of Waikato Associate Professor Dr Rachel McNae says things need to change.

“Young leaders are underserved,” says Dr McNae. “The opportunities for leadership and ways of leading are now so different to what they once were.”

Dr McNae’s research looks at just how complex and multifaceted youth leadership can be, extending beyond traditional student leadership roles in schools.

She says young people are accessing leadership in many different spaces, for example leading complex projects in their local communities through to global leadership in virtual forums.

“They’re launching start-up businesses, contributing to social justice projects through online collaborations, volunteering, and being activists for good, with many simply wanting to make a difference in the world,” she says.

Over the last decade Dr McNae has led research in youth leadership and supervised numerous postgraduate students interested in youth leadership development in the Masters of Educational Leadership.  

Some interesting and enduring findings about youth leadership have emerged, including the need for authentic leadership opportunities.

“Many students feel the current approaches to learning and practising leadership fail to meet their needs. They say opportunities are far removed from the lives young people actually lead and lack the authenticity required for meaningful engagement and leadership growth.”

Another major finding was the need for progressive leadership learning.

Traditional ways of perceiving leadership along with organisational structures inhibit leadership growth, Dr McNae says. 

“Many students view leadership as holding one of the few formal positions and roles available for mainly a small group of senior students. Leadership is more than a badge and a job description. Many students miss out on these opportunities and those who are successful often feel unprepared for the significant responsibility associated with the task.”

Dr McNae says recognising what young people bring to leadership is an essential first step to imagining and enacting future leadership encounters.

“We need to provide a collaborative, progressive and long-term approach to leadership learning, providing many opportunities to practise leadership in low-risk situations.”

Dr McNae is calling for new ways to support young people in their leadership and believes involving young people in designing leadership programmes may be a useful way to begin this new approach.

“Young people today ask for leadership to be in the here and now, to be inclusive and diverse, and to step away from what adults have shaped it to be. It must recognise the current contexts and also have a vision for their futures.”

The recently launched University of Waikato Young Leaders Academy (U-LEAD) provides opportunities for young people and adults to come together and examine leadership in different ways.  

“Rather than seeing young people as vessels needing to be filled, the U-LEAD research programme provides bespoke opportunities for leadership formation.”

Dr McNae says it’s within these spaces that “relationships matter, voices are heard and young leaders can flourish”.

Gain the skills to develop future leaders with a Masters of Educational Leadership. Applications for 2017 are now open.