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When in Doubt, Be Intentional

This post was written by Blaze Currie and submitted by the InnovATE project.

When Cassella arrived for the first time in Ghana, where she would spend the next eleven months as a 4-H club leader and agriculture teacher, she was, by her own admission, “overwhelmed.” Armed with a few weeks of youth development training and a handbook with a few dozen leadership activities and ideas for youth, she likely knew this experience would not be an easy one. When I made my first site visit to her rural junior high school, she admitted to feeling defeated. She had tried a few activities from her handbook and all failed miserably. Being a former 4-H member, Cassella knew a thousand games and activities, but what would work in Ghana? During her first 4-H club meeting, no students spoke. At this point she knew that no leadership workbook or training curriculum would save her, and she was correct. Instead she focused on the one principle that mattered most: “be intentional.” Cassella's Ghanaian students leading the 4-H club meeting. Photo credit: Blaze Currie.

Cassella's Ghanaian students leading the 4-H club meeting. Photo credit: Blaze Currie. 

Whenever I have been asked to help program managers or advisors with a youth leadership program, I always start with the same question: “Why does this program matter?” Most of the time I receive blank looks in response. I have found that those of us charged with managing and creating leadership development programs for youth often forget to ask the ever important “why” question. The best way we can be intentional in our leadership programs is by understanding why our programs matter.

Photo: Making "why" the center of youth leadership programs.

Making Why the Center of Youth Leadership Programs

As Simon Sinek puts it, “Start with why.” He has a fantastic Ted Talk and book on the subject that are worth checking out. In his Ted Talk, Simon uses what he calls “The Golden Circle” of why, how and what — always starting with why. In creating, designing, implementing and evaluating leadership development programs for youth, we need to start with “why.”

Cassella knew that she must answer these “why” questions: “Why does this program (club, chapter, etc.) exist?” and “What kind of leaders are we trying to develop?” Here is how to begin to answer the “why” question:

  1. See if the “why” question has already been answered. Sometimes we find that others have already done the heavy lifting, so we just need to piggyback on their work. Maybe the club or chapter we advise has already answered this question in the past. Also, parent organizations may have already started the process. If you are an FFA advisor, for example, you may look to the National FFA Organization’s answer to the “why” question. What you find shouldn’t be adopted verbatim, but is a good place to start.   
  2. Create a Leadership Development Advisory Team. The “why” question is best answered in a local context because why we do something in one place may be different than in another. Additionally, remember — this isn’t just your “why” but your school’s and community’s “why.” Work with stakeholders including parents, administration, community leaders to identify and establish a leadership advisory board or committee.
  3. Create a well-outlined and articulate answer to your “why” question. Your newly formed leadership advisory team should be very involved in creating this answer. Determine what qualities of leadership your program intends to develop in youth and the outcomes your community desires.
  4. Use this answer to the “why” question as a foundation to all decisions. This answer should guide the creation, design, implementation and evaluation of your leadership programs.
  5. Be intentional by focusing on your program’s “why!

When I arrived on my second site visit to Cassella’s school three months into her role as the school’s 4-H club advisor, what I saw blew me away. The club president called the club meeting to order and began conducting business. For the next fifty minutes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Speaking in their native tongue, Twi, students debated with one another, took votes, and made decisions about the future of the club. The students followed an agenda, created a plan for club activities, and had some surprisingly exciting debate about whether they should invest in raising pigs or goats as a club project.

Like many of us, at first Cassella was overwhelmed by all the things she could do with her leadership program. It was when Cassella focused on being intentional about the leadership development of the club’s members, using the program’s “why” statement as a guidepost, that she ultimately found success. There are thousands of leadership development activities and program options for advisors and club leaders. What Cassella learned and applied might be more important than any of them. Through answering the “why” question, she became intentional in creating an environment that allowed students to work together, learn together and lead together. It looked like real-life leadership because it was.

Blaze Currie is the former Executive Director of AgriCorps. Blaze has been a Team Leader for the National FFA Organization and a Leadership Development Coordinator for the Texas FFA Association. He is currently finishing his M.S. in Agricultural Education at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Cassella was an AgriCorps Fellow in Ghana in 2014-15. Learn more about AgriCorps hereLearn more about 4-H Ghana here.

This blog series on Agricultural Education is curated by the PSU Global Teach Ag! Initiative and the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education (InnovATE) project. To learn more, visit: http://aese.psu.edu/teachag/global. Questions or ideas to collaborate? Email teachag@psu.edu