It’s never too early to learn leadership, according to a CCL survey.

Fully 90 percent of respondents believe leadership development should start before age 18 — and certainly should be part of early-career learning.

The study, and CCL’s work with youth and young professionals, gives insight into what leadership skills matter most and how businesses can invest in next-generation leaders.

What should youth leadership development be developing?

Our survey — along with growing interest in CCL’s leadership initiatives for K-12 and university groups — clearly signals the need for leadership development to be a part of every student’s educational experience. If so, what should be the focus of youth leadership efforts?

One way to look at it is to consider what leadership skills young people need to enter the workforce. Here’s what we found from our survey.

The five most important competencies for young people entering the workforce today are:

  1. Self-motivation/Discipline
  2. Effective Communication
  3. Learning Agility
  4. Self-awareness
  5. Adaptability/Versatility

In comparison, the five most important competencies for young people entering the workforce 20 years ago were:

  1. Technical Mastery
  2. Self-motivation/Discipline
  3. Confidence
  4. Effective Communication
  5. Resourcefulness

Looking ahead, in 10 years the most important competencies will be:

  1. Adaptability/Versatility
  2. Effective Communication
  3. Learning Agility
  4. Multi-cultural Awareness
  5. Self-motivation/Discipline
  6. Collaboration

Notice that effective communication and self-motivation/discipline appear on all three lists — these may be core and enduring competencies that could receive more developmental focus during the high school and college years. Learning agility, too, is a “master” competency or core skill that fuels other skills and allows us to learn from experience.

Two competencies that appear on this future skills list — multi-cultural awareness and collaboration — are driven by the increasing interconnectivity and interdependence of our work and lives. Fortunately, these skills can easily be developed through project-based learning in high school and college, as well as through early leader development experiences on the job.

What can businesses do to develop next-generation leaders?

  • Seek new and creative ways to partner with educational institutions — universities and K-12 — to better prepare young leaders. Southern Methodist University’s Lyle School of Engineering is incorporating leadership content into the curriculum for all 999 engineering students. CCL has also begun a multi-faceted leadership development program involving students, faculty, staff, board members and parents for Ravenscroft, a K-12 private school in Raleigh, NC.
  • Provide support to existing youth leadership programs run by nonprofits and schools. Good programs exist but reach far too few students and are usually under-resourced. For example, CCL and the Greensboro, NC YMCA created an innovative program with 28 modules involving leadership and mentoring for African-American and Latino youth during their high school years. The work is now fully run by the Greensboro Y, but other youth organizations could benefit from program enhancements, financial support and mentoring support for programs like this.
  • Establish two-way, cross-generational leadership and mentoring programs. Pair a young person, either just in the workforce or soon to enter the workforce, with an older, experienced employee for co-mentoring. The youth have much to offer in mentoring their more experienced and/or longer-tenured bosses and coworkers — typically they are comfortable with technology and the pace of change, have good multicultural awareness and adaptability, are willing to learn and eager to make a difference. The more experienced leaders can offer insight on career direction, ideas for greater effectiveness, feedback and opportunities for development.
  • Provide leadership opportunities. Be sure your early-career employees have mentors and bosses who know how to develop others and will give them opportunities to practice their skills in a real leadership context. Intentional, planned job rotations, developmental assignments and involvement with a variety of projects and on cross-functional teams or task forces are effective strategies. Coaching and leader development programs are also good ways to build the self-awareness so critical for leadership.
  • Encourage employees to “own” their leadership role and development. Help people (at all levels in the organization) see themselves as the person in charge of their job, in coordination with others on the team and in alignment with the organization’s goals. Remind them that it is important to seek frequent feedback on performance, get coaching (formally or informally) on areas where skills need to develop, and do all they can to learn outside of their current skill set and knowledge base. Let them know they can develop off-the-job, too — being on a local Board, directing a community project or creating something new on their own.

Working directly with youth? Learn about CCL’s Early Leadership Toolkit and our Train-the-Trainer Program March 18-20 in Greensboro, NC. Contact Dawn Farabee at

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