The Benefits of Teaching Leadership Skills to At-Risk Youth

Updated: Apr 29

It was a normal morning at the all boys school in this large urban school district – the cafeteria brimmed with energy. One by one - students entered the auditorium stopping briefly to grab a breakfast and hurry to their seats.

The tables were arranged by grade level. All sixth graders sat together. All fifth graders sat together. All fourth graders sat together - so on and so forth.

At the front of the small auditorium which doubled as the gymnasium, three teachers stood monitoring every movement. As one instructor called out to students using a bullhorn (commanding attention over the noise), a student drags the large dumpster around the room collecting garbage.

On this morning, everything proceeded as planned, then out of nowhere, fists started flying. The bigger student (I’ll call him Henry) pounced the smaller student like a punching bag. Two teachers dashed across the room to separate them. While my colleagues escorted the culprits to the principal’s office, I calmed the troops.

The bell rang signaling the end of the period.

The Challenge

The fight presented an opportunity – a teachable moment – especially since both students were in my class. Besides, their peers would not resist the temptation to fuel the fire instigating another altercation.

Always anticipating – I decided to spoil the plot (busting a few bubbles). They’d get another diversion all right, but I’d shift the focus. As a transformation leader, I was prepared to take them to the place of no return.

Ask a Question

The contenders arrived at the end of bell work. Beating everyone to the punchline I asked, “Do leaders fight to solve problems?” Stunned - the class sat quietly; the prize fighters rushed to justify their positions. All in all, it boiled down to someone saying something offensive the day before. Instead of letting bygones be bygones tempers flared. You know the rest of the story.

Lead a Discussion

Full steam ahead - I conducted a poll. “By show of hands – how many consider themselves leaders?” The students glanced around the room to see who’d raise their hand first.

“What’s the problem? Either you’re a leader or you’re not. Remember, a leader has followers. Do you have followers?”

They had no idea – I was warming up.

  • “Why do you consider yourself a leader?” They expressed their ideas.

  • “Name a person (past or present) you consider a good leader.

  • What qualities distinguish good leaders from bad leaders?”

After firing off the series of questions, I asked for a volunteer - to write the next collection of responses on the board.

  • The students generated a list of qualities: responsible, kind, sense of humor, honest, forgiveness, communication, teamwork, courage, character, respect, problem solver, and risk taker.

I chimed in with the big S, self-control. “Good leaders examine the consequences. They think before they speak. They think before they act. Practicing self-control is a way of life.”

Profile Leaders

This transitioned nicely into a discussion about Muhammad Ali and my perception of him as a leader. On one hand, I used the illustration to capture Henry’s attention. On the other, I could interject history about the Vietnam War and teach vocabulary.

As a professional, Muhammad Ali maintained self-control inside and outside of the boxing ring. He did not bully others. Ali understood that every decision had an end result. Although remaining steadfast against the war (refusing military service as a conscientious objector) the action cost him the heavy weight title and ability to fight. That took courage.

Eventually I presented my definition of leadership - taking initiative to solve problems and do the right thing.

Increase Self Awareness

Using a scale of 1-5 (1 = the lowest leadership level and 5= the highest leadership level) the class would be rated daily on teamwork, responsibility (cleaning and organizing classroom), respect, communication, following directions, problem solving, and self-control.

At the end of the week, each student would receive a certificate of achievement highlighting a quality from the list of leadership traits. Students benefit from understanding their strengths – what makes them unique.

Track Outcomes

Here's what happened:

  • They enthusiastically accepted the challenge.

  • Henry followed me around the first day asking questions about self-control. He shared stories about his grandmother and why he admired her discipline.

  • Students looked forward to obtaining progress reports.

  • They took responsibility for the appearance of the classroom. The janitor was shocked to find it clean and organized.

  • They started holding each other accountable.

  • The students craved discovering more about leaders and leadership.

  • They enjoyed learning the history of their city.

Teaching leadership skills to at-risk youth is a win-win. The trick is finding creative ways to weave it into the curriculum.

Write to Stephanie Harbin at


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