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Empowered versus powerful student leaders

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

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I spent some time looking up the words “powerful” and “empowerment,” since these two words stem from the same base word (power), and power is inherent in all leaders. When I initially started thinking about this I believed that empowerment was only a positive approach to student leadership, but after some reflection I realized that I need to incorporate both of these words in how I provide training for my students.


A leader that becomes stronger and more confident using their opportunity as a leader, is empowered. Someone like Martin Luther King, one of whose greatest characteristics was that he could command an audience, had his power come from his ability to communicate, command authority, and demonstrate confidence. Often leaders like this don't call themselves leaders, people follow them because they believe in what the leaders are saying, and how they lead.

I can also see this happening at the student level. It’s often the young men that need to be empowered at the high school age. Johnny was a student who had bounced from home to home, and had very little outside support. Johnny most certainly did not have a parent telling him he was a leader, or could lead his friends, helping them make good decisions. He was labeled a troublemaker because of who his friends were, and that he often got in trouble, (you and I could probably put any labeled troublemaker in this story). Under the surface, I saw a very kind, caring and thoughtful boy. In fact, at one point when he had gotten in trouble (yet again), I told Johnny as much. I told him I saw him as a leader, one that younger students, who struggled like him, looked up to. The look he gave me when I said that was pure astonishment.

Actually, I'll never forget that look.

Nobody was ever going to tell Johnny that he could be a leader, especially after all the trouble he had been in that year.

How do you take a boy like Johnny, labeled a troublemaker, and turn him into a leader? You empower him, you find him a community where he can practice being a leader, and build his confidence. Remember my first post, where I explained why we give students a voice, and I gave you a suggestion. You start by connecting him to a younger group of students in homeroom or advisory, but it is important that you first talk to him about some of his choices. Often, when you dig in, you find he made those choices out of desperation to be included. You also remind him how he can use his voice, and talk to others about how he would do things differently, giving the other students an opportunity to learn from him. What better opportunity for Johnny?

We can also have empowered leaders who aren’t using their power for good. Someone who is entitled, for example. This is sometimes even seen in management or administration. When leaders are entitled, they often are not willing to do the things they ask their staff to do. That is the conversation that I have with my student leaders. If I am not willing to do the things that I ask of my student leaders, then I cannot or should not ask my students to do it.


Just like empowered leaders, powerful leaders can both negatively and positively influence their followers. Powerful leaders who operate in a negative approach make decisions that perhaps only serve a small segment of the population, or just their own desires and needs. Nancy Reagan was very powerful in her position as First Lady of the United States, using her power to begin the Just Say No to Drugs campaign, which was an effort to raise awareness of drug use, but essentially increased the stigma of people who used drugs as bad (see Johnny above). This reduced the ability for youth to get accurate information about dealing with drug abuse.

There are many student leaders who also take this type of leadership approach. I am sure you can fill in many of these types of student leaders.

We also have powerful leaders who use their power in a way that is good for the community. Michele Obama was very powerful, like Nancy Reagan, as First Lady of the United States, however she used her power to be an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating. The student examples I have shared come from student leaders, like the ones I work with. Last year, the student leaders worked together, with several others not in the class, to create a lesson for any school to use with their entire student body on reducing mental health stigma.

Hopefully now you see that we can create all sorts of student leaders in our schools, and I think the leaders that I hope you push to support are the students who need to be empowered. This will take some work on your part, work that I will continue to support with you. Until we become more willing and accepting of all people's ability to lead, we have to remember that we may be the only person to empower many of our students. If you would like some support, or think the ideas I am sharing could be useful in a training session for you or your school - please contact me today for a discovery conversation to see if we are a good fit. I really want to spread the world with strong, confident leaders. I can work with teachers, students or your own children, there is really nothing we can’t try.

What kind of leaders are your student leaders?

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