Learning leadership by working with teens

There are thousands of books on business management and leadership. I’ve read but a small portion of them. But I’ll let you in on a secret – I learned more about business leadership by working as a camp counselor and youth group advisor than I learned from any of those books.
This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, what does managing a team in business have to do with teaching leadership to a group of kids or teenagers? Aren’t those very different things?
Yes – and no. The truth is, it doesn’t matter, because from the perspective of learning leadership skills as an adult, there is one difference between working with adults and working with teens that makes all the difference. It has to do with feedback.
You can read all of the leadership and management books and take all the courses you want – but the skills and knowledge you learn from them don’t become real until you actually practice them. As you start applying the techniques you learn, how can you tell if they are working? How do you know if you are actually doing things well? What is the nature of the feedback you receive?
In the business world, the feedback you get can be severely limited. Ideally, you’d like your employees or team members to be comfortable giving you honest feedback, but how often is that really the case? Even if they do trust you to receive honest feedback, they – like most adults, wear “masks”. Part of being an adult is learning to hide our feelings, to put on an act based on the situation we are in. We are taught be put on a professional front. This is not a bad thing – acting professionally helps people to get along and work well together, but it can make it difficult as a manager to know what people really think about how you are doing.
Kids and teenagers usually lack this filter. If you make a leadership mistake when working with teens, they will let you know. Sometimes they will let you know explicitly (possibly even politely). Sometimes you will be able to read it in their expressions and body language. But you can’t miss it. The feedback is direct, immediate and honest.
Working with teens allows you to rapidly refine your leadership and interpersonal skills, and to practice them in a way that can’t be reproduced anywhere else. You can’t teach them leadership skills without them teaching you more in return.
And here’s the real surprise. Most of the skills and techniques you learn working with teens will apply directly to working with adults. If you can learn to earn the respect of a group of teens, to treat them with respect, and to encourage and inspire them, I guarantee you will be able to do so brilliantly with adults.
So do yourself a favor and volunteer with a local scout troop, youth ministry, school club, or other local program. As much as you may contribute, you will gain far more in return.