How youth are breaking leadership taboos

13 April 2018

Young people are starting to reject common assumptions about how they should act, argues Fiona Kennedy. Other groups could learn from them.

Just nine days after the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida one of its students, Cameron Kasky, put a new twist on the tragedy.

"Douglas is a school filled with thousands of leaders," he tweeted.

" Leaders who know that despite what happened, we are lucky to go to Douglas. Leaders who take action the right way. Leaders who rebuild the world that failed us".

Cameron himself was a co-founder of the 'Never Again' movement, which helped plan the student-led March for Our Lives demonstration in the nation's capital in support of greater gun control. With some 2 million people marching in more than 800 similar events across the US, it was one of the largest protests in US history.

Dr Fiona Kennedy, a senior facilitator in the Business School's New Zealand Leadership Institute, says the nature of the student activism, and the language that Kasky used to frame it, is highly significant.

He and his friends and supporters have gained momentum, says Kennedy, buoyed by what American community organiser Saul Alinsky once called a readiness to "rub raw the sores of discontent".

"These students are, in fact, 'rubbing' in several directions. The glaring sore is the continued bloodshed in places where safety should never be in question. However, they are also taking aim at common assumptions about young people that constrain who they are and what they can do," says Kennedy.

She says it is now understood that ideas about self are shaped by social messages which are then internalised, and that self-monitoring restrains identities in the modern world more than any external, direct influence on behaviour.

Young people are widely seen as being unready for leadership roles in society, except as 'apprentices' whose aspirations must be tempered and steered by adults. As a 17-year-old, Kasky explicitly rejected the tendency to disempower youth in this way.

The Stoneman Douglas students, and related movements such as Student Walkout Against Gun Violence, are getting unprecedented traction in their demands on gun control.

"But their resistance is shot through with explicit challenges regarding how young people are portrayed, and their right to lead".

Moral urgency amongst young people is not new, she says. In many households, sons and daughters make sure that recycling and conservation starts at home. And in March, 2018, three former Otorohanga College students who, three years earlier, had presented a petition calling for a formal day of remembrance of the New Zealand Wars, spoke at the first national commemoration in Waitangi.

"However, the Florida students' blatant engagement with questions of identity and power turns up the heat as they pre-empt paternalistic responses to their activism."

Alinsky argued that radicals needed anger, hope, and the belief that they could make a difference. Kennedy says the Stoneman Douglas students may well be revising Alinsky's rules for contemporary circumstances, engaging head on with questions of power and identity to fuel anger, create new hope, and sustain belief.

"While this has particular resonance for young people, we suspect there are potent lessons here for other groups that struggle with dynamics of identity and power," she says.


Fiona Kennedy

Dr Fiona Kennedy is a Researcher and Senior Leadership Facilitator at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, which is based at the University of Auckland Business School.



Millennials are uncertain, not 'entitled'

We have read millennials wrong, argues Mike Lee. They can be as hard-working as anyone. What they most need are clear work boundaries in an uncertain world.



Rod McNaughton on the skills of tomorrow

Professor Rod McNaughton is Deputy Dean of the Business School. He discusses the changes that are impacting the types of jobs we do and outlines the role of education in delivering the skills needed to thrive in a shifting world of work.



Is New Zealand being managed, rather than led?

New Zealand doesn’t need maverick leaders but we do need leadership, argues Fiona Kennedy.





Why coalition friction could be a good thing

Differences between Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First could spur innovation, suggests Fiona Kennedy.




21st-Century Governance

Social and environmental accountability is becoming the new benchmark for directors.




Calling the island to you

Polynesian navigators offer powerful leadership lessons.




The alchemy of leadership

Getting "authenticity" wrong can be dangerous for both leaders and followers.