A new approach to teaching leadership

David Gregory questions the essence of leadership and how to teach it, following a simple comment by a student after a day in the field.

A fresh approach

During a debrief session, following a recent hike, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘Making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘Helping others!’
I asked him to explain what he meant and the discussion continued around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me, “What a profound statement!” Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this idea before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that perspective. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way = more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.

When working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through the straightforward comment of one of the students, I immediately found a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership. We continued to run with the idea of ‘helpership’ and enjoyed a very productive and meaningful discussion, both for the students who had come up with the idea and for all the other students involved.

Understanding leadership

Our understanding of leadership can become confused with largesse and by the sometimes baffling ‘leadership’ seen on the military or political world stage. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, give a distorted view of leadership.

For students it’s difficult to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with news of these political figures every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have risen to power, some by dubious means. This results in misconceptions about true leadership.

For many, true leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp because of personal experience. It can be confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between the qualities of a leader and the traits of a manager. This results from personal experience and context; students, for example, might only see leadership as what teachers do or they might see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team.

Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in the position of authority is actively helping others.

True leadership

The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.

Helpership in action

If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (and there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others.

This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.

Positive leadership qualities

As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.

Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one for developing leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.

The concept of helpership starts the conversation in an accessible way so students can begin to understand, unlike the political egotists of the world, that leadership is not about you; it’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.

So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students start to understand what leadership is all about.


David Gregory

David is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years. David has planned and led outdoor education programs for students from primary age, through senior school. David’s a keen snow skier and outside of the outdoors he enjoys museums and art galleries, his favourite being the V&A in London.

For more about his work, click the picture or see


Feature Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Supporting Images: Maennchen, Gerd Altmann, Keith Johnston & billycm  –  Pixabay