Leadership

Here's how young people can learn to lead

A woman leading a meeting in-front of collegues.

What sets a leader apart from a manager is an extraordinary form of influence. Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Christian Harrison
Reader in Leadership, School of Business and Creative Industries, University of the West of Scotland
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Leadership is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Leadership

Loading...
  • Leadership and management are not the same things, argues an expert.
  • Research identifies four main skillsets to develop to be a successful leader: entrepreneurial, technical, interpersonal and conceptual.
  • Even a 20-year-old in their first low-paid job should think about striving to gain leadership skills, he says.
  • But those who seek to wield authority purely for self-gratification often fail.

Leadership is most commonly held to be the ability to motivate others to achieve set goals. For some, this means being heroic and special. The world stood still when Nelson Mandela died. His achievements alone – the freedom fighter turned political prisoner, the first black president of South Africa, the Nobel peace prize winner – would qualify him as a great leader.

For others, leadership is synonymous with management. But although these words are often used interchangeably, they don’t actually mean the same thing. You might well have had firsthand experience of a manager you would not necessarily choose to follow, but whom you must obey simply because they are in a position of authority and you don’t want to lose your job.

My research shows that what sets a leader apart from a manager is an extraordinary form of influence. And far from being the sole preserve of business and politics, every collective – no matter the profession or activity – needs someone at the helm.

Core leadership skillsets

At every stage and in every sphere of life, people need someone who can champion their values and fight for their needs. This means that even a 20-year-old in their first low-paid job should think about striving to gain leadership skills – and research identifies four main skillsets to develop.

Entrepreneurial skills involve identifying opportunities where others see problems or confusion, and being able to figure out how best to exploit them. Crucially, it means not being afraid to take risks. In 2018, Greta Thunberg risked jeopardising her school results when she started her lone school strike for climate, aged 15. The 2019 Nobel peace prize nominee has gone on to galvanise a global youth activist movement.

An image of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie smiling.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was recognized as one of the BBC's 100 women of 2021. Image: The Conversation/Lev Radin

Technical skills, meanwhile, are the competencies and analytical abilities to excel within your field. The literary and intellectual mastery that Nigerian author and feminist thinker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has achieved was made plain in 2021 when she was recognised as one of the BBC’s 100 women of the year.

Interpersonal skills are the third set – the ability to understand and work with people. Being a good and compassionate communicator means you are able to make better decisions and build more effective teams. Mahatma Gandhi’s profound empathy, paired with his willingness to live like the people he sought to help, made him an excellent role model.

Last, conceptual skills allow people to process and analyse complex situations and generate new ideas. This means you are able to plan strategically and creatively solve problems. Martin Luther King inspired millions of people with his unwavering vision – a clear picture of a nation’s future, which he was able to effectively communicate to his fellow citizens.

Loading...

These leadership skills are transferable. Even if you change direction in your career, you take them with you. Before he ran for presidential office and served as US secretary of housing and urban development, Ben Carson was a pioneering surgeon, the youngest chief of paediatric neurosurgery in the US. He has since founded a prominent policy-focused thinktank.

Carson achieved these professional milestones despite coming from a disadvantaged background. His story showcases how being a leader involves setting your own goals (envisioning), putting in the work to achieve them (determination and decision-making), and seizing opportunities (risk management).

Heroes and mentors

One of the best ways to cultivate leadership skills is by learning from the successes – and failures – of the people you admire. Oprah Winfrey cites the author Maya Angelou, whom she met early in her career in the 1970s, as her greatest mentor.

Poet Maya Angelou (L) performs onstage with publisher and talk show host Oprah Winfrey (R).
Oprah Winfrey cites the author Maya Angelou as her greatest mentor. Image: REUTERS

Part of being mentored is learning to develop skills you already have. As Winfrey has said of Angelou: “‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”

Investing in personal growth is equally important. Read books, do further training – make a conscious effort to diversify your sources, challenge yourself and keep learning. Take note of your strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your learning accordingly – put plans in place to address those gaps. Stay curious and humble and be methodical in tracking your progress. Remember, no one becomes a leader overnight and nor do they ever reach perfection. Politics is full of people in positions of leadership who lose their way.

Self-reflection is key. Ask yourself why you want to be a leader. Those who seek to wield authority purely for self-gratification often fail. Leadership is best framed as serving whomever you propose to lead.

Loading...
Discover

How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

Have you read?
Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipFuture of Work
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

This is what businesses need to be focusing on in 2024, according to top leaders

Victoria Masterson

April 16, 2024

3:12

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum