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Scientists cite need for more research on leadership development in adolescence

Period of rapid development in adolescence offers chance to cultivate, diversify leaders of tomorrow
Greta Thunberg speaks during the climate strike march in October 2021 in Milan, Italy. People like Thunberg are proof that leadership develops well before adulthood. Getty Images

Greta Thunberg, David Hogg and Malala Yousafzai, all teenagers when their activism caught the world’s attention, are proof that leadership develops well before adulthood.

As essential as they are, and as complex the challenges they face as tomorrow’s leaders, scientists do not understand the traits and experience that define young leaders. While there is clear evidence that leaders blossom early, little research exists about leadership development in adolescence.

The paper “Understanding the Leaders of Tomorrow: The Need to Study Leadership in Adolescence” makes a case for adding a multidisciplinary developmental perspective to leadership research. The study was published today (Nov. 9) by Perspectives on Psychological Science.

“The rapid development of personality, peer relationships, values and vocational identity during this period, make adolescence an optimal time for developing leadership potential,” said Jennifer Tackett, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University and the paper’s corresponding author.

Tackett is director of the Personality Across Development (PAD) lab, and a professor of psychology at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

Arguing that an understanding of youth leadership would have immediate application for educators, parents, policy makers and employers, the authors propose bringing together expertise from different areas of psychological science to study early leadership, how it emerges, develops and influences leadership ability as adults.

They point out opportunities for taking concepts from the study of leadership in adults and extending them to adolescents, while simultaneously leveraging existing adolescent-focused research on peer influence and cognitive and behavioral development to form a more nuanced model of how leadership develops through life stages.

They also suggest new avenues of research including studying the environments adolescent leaders occupy, such as athletics, social justice efforts, extracurriculars and social media, to better understand how early leadership takes shape. 

In addition to the benefits research on leadership development in youth could have on society, it could also benefit the individual youth by helping them form a broader sense of their own leadership identity and an enhanced understanding of their own personal strengths and capacity, according to the authors. 

Other goals of the research are to develop leadership interventions to maximize potential and facilitate better diversification of the leadership pipeline.

“We think that a lot of great leadership potential is getting lost as youth develop in the context of cumulative, multilayered systemic barriers, and that looking earlier in life may be a key to harnessing and fostering this potential well ahead of these later outcomes,” Tackett said. “Everyone stands to benefit from improving leadership skill and effectiveness in the leaders of tomorrow.”

Other leadership scientists contributing to the paper include researchers from Cleveland State University, University of Southern California, Wayne State University, University of Toronto, Ghent University, University of Exeter and Rice University.

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