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How To Identify Student Leaders

“Imagine a large river with a high waterfall. At the bottom of this waterfall hundreds of people are working frantically trying to save those who have fallen into the river and have fallen down the waterfall, many of them drowning. As the people along the shore are trying to rescue as many as possible, one individual looks up and sees a seemingly never-ending stream of people falling down the waterfall and begins to run upstream. One of other rescuers hollers, “Where are you going? There are so many people that need help here.” To which the man replied, “I’m going upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river.”

Saul Alinsky, 20th century social reformer

You are that person sprinting upstream. Identifying students in your respective sphere of influence that have leadership potential is proactive. You and I live and work at the “bottom of the waterfall.” Our culture is gorged with leaders who are simply not worth following. And because of that, we struggle to choose better leaders. The tempting answer for a reason why is that we don’t have better choices. But identification and development of real leaders are parts of upstream thinking.

So who should we look for? Who is the potential student leader in our midst? How do we identify a teenager with leadership potential? Let me suggest five who’s to help you identify the student leaders waiting in your ministry.

ALPHAS: Who are the alpha wolves?

On every high school campus and in every youth ministry context, there are students who other students gravitate toward. That gravitational pull might not necessarily be toward Jesus or even toward something or somewhere positive, but you cannot ignore the pull. The pack always chooses the alpha wolf. More times than not, you don’t have to choose your leaders because your students have already chosen them for you. Our task as youth leaders is to help that girl or guy become the best version of themselves, meaning their influence will be redirected. If the pack chooses the alpha wolf and you choose the wrong wolf, your attempt at student leadership development can actually backfire on you.

ENERGIZERS: Who changes the energy in the room?

Stalking is creepy, but let me encourage you to become a “stalker” of sorts of teenagers, especially in environments where there is a critical mass of teenagers. Ask yourself this question: What students in your respective sphere of influence change the energy in the room for the better when they are in the room? You have teenagers who attend your environments and are in your sphere of influence who are simply infectious and light. They are a walking party! That positive energy is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The stronger it gets, the more influential and effective a teenager becomes. In his book The Energy Bus, Jon Gordon calls people who drain energy “energy vampires.” He says energy vampires “will suck the life out of you and your goals and vision.” Teenagers avoid and will not follow an energy vampire. So look for the energizers to develop in your ministry.

WANT TO: Who wants to be a leader?

Want to is a must in leadership, but it’s also tricky. Richard Rohr observed that “many use their faith for order, certitude and a predictable family or tribe, and then call it objective truth when it’s actually very subjective.” We have made heroes of teenagers who lead worship on a stage or do missions in a 4th world country, but subsequently, we’ve made zeroes of anyone whose gifting and passion isn’t in that box. Even more, there are those teenagers who sadly replace the heart of leadership —influence — with gaining position or status. There is nothing wrong at all with a teenager choosing to make their church’s youth ministry the hub of their social life. There is something terribly mistaken about discounting a student’s influence or leadership ability because they don’t. And even more, there’s something wrong with overestimating a student’s influence because they do. If your goal is just to make your ministry better, your leaders should be the ones most committed to the ministry. If your goal is to develop students as leaders, your leaders should be the ones who demonstrate potential, passion, or natural ability to lead.

THE BIG PO: Who has incredible potential to be a leader?

There are teenagers who have noticeable potential to lead. Maybe it’s misdirected. Maybe it’s untapped. Maybe it’s disguised as rebellion, goofiness, or apathy. Development is critical to any of these who’s, but especially to the teenager with incredible potential. We believe leadership is a choice. We think influence is the sum total of thousands of choices made over time. “Influence is built in a thousand invisible mornings.” Which means that potential isn’t a bad word. Choosing to be defined by what is true. Choosing first to go last. Choosing to create a better future by going the second mile. Choosing love over fear. Choosing passion over distraction. When you enable a teenager to start making choices like these consistently over time, they become a leader worth following.

EQ: Who exhibits emotional intelligence?

Empathy. Justice. Compassion. Wisdom. These are the qualities of students who have emotional intelligence. They are the ones others turn to for help and advice about their problems, issues, and relationships. They are very emotionally expressive and respond to emotional events more than others do. According to behavioral scientists, all of these are signs of high levels of emotional intelligence. We need to fuel students with high EQ who understand how to navigate a world where race, sexuality, equality, financial integrity, politics, education, technology, business, entertainment, and yes, even ministry, are in a constant state of flux.

So there you have it: The five who’s you need to be looking for in your student ministry. These are the leaders just waiting for you to discover and develop. So do the work. Swim upstream and find them.

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