Young leaders face internal conflicts

May 9, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – What makes a good leader? Is it someone who listens and puts the needs of the group before her own? Someone who adapts her leadership style to new situations? Or are the best leaders those that command, with unwavering resolve and a consistent style? Not sure? Neither are young adult leaders, according to a recent study from the University of Illinois.

“What we found through interviewing undergraduate students is that they consistently and unconsciously contradicted themselves about the qualities of a good leader,” says David Rosch, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership and Science Education at U of I.

Rosch and collaborator Daniel Collier interviewed a diverse group of 23 U of I undergraduates that had both leadership training and personal leadership experience.

“We asked them a ton of different questions about what they thought about leadership,” Rosch explains. “For example, ‘What do you think leadership is? What do you think good leaders do? What do you think bad leaders do that’s different from what good leaders do?’ Theoretical questions. Then we asked them practical questions about their own behaviors, how they do leadership well in their own heads.”

There were contradictions in almost every student’s interview. When asked about the qualities of an ideal leader, most students talked about leaders as servants to the group, sacrificing their own priorities for the greater good. But, just minutes later, many students suggested those types of leaders were weak or ineffective. They also spoke negatively about commander-style leaders, but later made positive remarks about them.

“They clearly believed their first definition of good leadership, and they clearly believed the opposite at the same time,” Rosch notes. “Young adults are in a phase where they are beginning to realize there are a lot of different ways to lead. There are times to listen and there are times to say ‘Folks, I think we need to do this.’ What we found was that undergrads don’t yet understand when to do which.”

Our views on leadership come from our own experiences with natural leaders in our lives – parents, teachers, coaches, and others. Rosch says we tend to learn good lessons from those interactions. The contradictions often come from what Rosch calls “Hollywood lessons of leadership,” those dramatic stories in which a dynamic, powerful leader makes a strong decision to save the group.  

Leadership training can help young adults make sense of these conflicts. Rosch says training should include self-reflection exercises for those moments of internal conflict, as well as an emphasis on scenario recognition. “Leaders need to know how to read situations so they can adapt their style and decisions accordingly,” he notes.

The article, “The internal conflicts of undergraduate students regarding effective leadership practices,” is published in the Journal of Leadership Studies.

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