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Teaching Strategies: Getting Students to Follow Good Leaders

Jordan Catapano

In education, our teaching strategies often include tailoring students to become leaders. Student leaders are often awarded a multitude of scholarships, leadership classes in junior high and high school abound, and even one of the four pillars for admission into the National Honors Society is leadership. A common phrase goes: Today’s students, tomorrow’s leaders.

The truth, though, is that not everyone can be a spearhead—the vast majority of students will spend their lives as followers. But even the world’s top frontrunners claim that the best leaders are the best followers. If we’re serious about using teaching strategies to train students to be effective citizens living meaningful lives, we ought to devote time toward helping them identify the right leaders to follow.

Traits That Define a Good Leader

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” by John C. Maxwell, is a book targeted toward individuals who want to become leaders. However, it also posits that no matter the circumstances, quality leaders possess the same fundamental traits. Here are a few of those key factors:

They have a vision. Without a doubt, one of the defining characteristics is that they have an end game in mind, a vision for how things should be—and are driving their team toward realizing that vision.

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They are morally centered. At heart, good leaders are good people. They’re not self-seeking or vindictive, but instead making the world a better place while encouraging others to do likewise.

They can communicate clearly. Great leaders have mastered the mediums of communication, and use them effectively to share their vision with the team. They are honest and straightforward, and when it comes time to make a decision, they make it and accept the consequences. No matter the vision, an unclear message will doubtlessly frustrate.

They listen effectively. Not only will good threatened leaders communicate well, but they also listen well. The needs and ideas of others are their lifeblood, fueling their success. They also surround themselves with other good leaders without feeling.

They are servants. Good leaders aren’t generals who sit in their towers barking orders. They get their hands dirty with everyone else. They work the hardest, and put the needs and interests of others before themselves. They’re also humble, taking the blame but attributing the credit to others.

They are experts in their field. Effective leaders may not have the answers all the time, but they know their stuff when it comes to their particular area of focus.

Teaching Strategies to Get Students to Think Critically About Their Leaders

When we teach students about leadership, we do so with the assumption that they are destined to become leaders. But not all students possess that skillset—or desire. Instead, one of our priorities should be to help them identify these attributes in other people, both current and potential leaders.

First, get students to identify who they follow. They follow adults, like parents and teachers; they follow musicians, actors, characters from film and television, politicians—they even follow one another. Often, they follow others without realizing they are doing so.

Then, they can examine to what extent those individuals actually represent the characteristics they’d like to have in their leaders. Students can begin to think critically about what role those leaders play in their lives, and possibly cross off them off their list.

Finally, students can add to their list. They can talk to one another, share ideas via social media, and expose themselves to surrounding culture to determine who is worth following. What visions do they want to be a part of? What people inspire them to be more than who they are already?

The more students spend time exposed to certain individuals, the more their lives begin to reflect those influences. If we can teach them to surround themselves with positive leaders who embody attributes that edify their lives and communities, then we can truly position students to be successful throughout their lives.

How do you talk to students about leadership? Do you think it’s more important to be a good leader or to be a good follower? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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