Students and leadership

What do you understand by the term ‘leadership’? Who do you consider to be a good leader and what are the attributes that make them so?

These were the questions researchers asked Middle Years students to gain insights that could inform planning of school student leadership programs.

Associate Professors Anne Coffey and Shane Lavery, from the University of Notre Dame Australia, interviewed 72 students in Years 7-9 from 12 metropolitan schools. They argue that if we’re to develop effective leadership programs for students, rather than simply imposing our own ideas there’s a need to understand the perspective of those most affected – the students themselves.

Good leaders are more than just heroes

In the journal Improving Schools, the academics report students had ‘a more comprehensive view of leadership than someone who might simply be considered a hero’. Examples of good leaders fell into three broad groups:

  • National and international personalities: including human rights advocates and those ‘prepared to stand up for others’ such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai; and, sportsmen and women who encouraged others, such as Adam Goodes, Sir Donald Bradman, Cathy Freeman and Serena Williams.
  • Teachers and principals: students spoke about principals as making a difference and ‘someone you can look up to and admire’; and teachers as ‘setting an awesome example’ and being there for their students.
  • Family members: Students in one focus group nominated parents and their close relatives as being good leaders, someone to look up to and someone with more experience who can give advice.

Students’ understanding of leadership

Themes included: teamwork and guiding others towards a common goal rather than just telling them; delegating; adaptability; and generosity.

Coffey and Lavery write: ‘Participants from seven focus groups advanced the idea that leadership involved service. They noted that bad leaders “will just try and control everything”, “try and have all the power that they can get”, “do their own thing” and focus on “simply having the badge”.’ Students considered the essence of good leadership as thinking of everyone and putting others above yourself.

Four dispositions of good leaders

When they were asked about the characteristics of a ‘good leader’ students said the qualities could be developed by anyone. Four interconnected dispositions emerged:

  • Integrity: all of the focus groups agreed on integrity as a key attribute.
  • Other-centred and relational: for example, that leaders should ‘look at things from other people’s perspectives’ and be inclusive.
  • Courageous: the need to step up and out of your comfort zone, make hard decisions that might not always be popular; the courage to stand up for others and your beliefs.
  • Inspirational: setting a good example for others; having a vision and being an effective communicator (including listening).

It is recommended school leaders review their student leadership programs and listen to input from students when planning these programs.

References: Lavery, S., & Coffey, A. (2020). Middle school students’ views about leaders and leadership. Improving Schools.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit