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Leadership, High School Style


There is no question that the ability to lead is a highly valued quality in the workforce. In fact, many of you have probably heard enough about leadership to last a lifetime.

In case you haven't noticed, the whole leadership thing has trickled down to high school. And with scholarship season starting soon after your student gets settled into Grade 12, leadership is an important thing to discuss because many scholarships and awards will assess at least partly on leadership experience or ‘potential’.

Thankfully, in Canada, we don’t have the same level of competition as in the United States, but some university and many scholarship applications ask students to discuss their leadership experience. And for some programs, and for all of the larger scholarships, the competition is tough. One of the biggest awards in Canada, valued at $100,000, assesses heavily on character, service, and leadership.

Why all the fuss about leadership? Universities want leaders on campus to be positive role models, inspire other students to achieve, and generally do good things for the university community. Of course, if these students also win awards and public accolades, and become successful leaders in their career, so much the better for the school’s reputation.

Scholarship foundations wish to reward students who have gone above and beyond their peers, who have challenged themselves and made a positive impact in their community. They also hope the student will go on to take a leadership role in their community.

Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. Indeed, not everyone wants to be a leader. But if your student has a mind to try it out, it can be an incredibly rewarding and empowering experience. It can help to build confidence and expand their opportunities for the future.

If your student is considering working towards a leadership role, here are a few ways to help.

1. Start early.

Encourage your student to try out different activities in Grades 9 and 10. Or perhaps they can find a cause they feel strongly about. Either way, if they find something in particular they enjoy, they can keep at it and try to work their way into a leadership role in Grade 11 or early in Grade 12. If your student wants to use the experience as an entry on a scholarship application, the leadership activity should be completed (or be in full swing) by mid-year of Grade 12. Any later and many of the application deadlines will have passed.

2. Have a discussion about what leadership means.

Ask your student what leadership means to them. What are the qualities of a good leader? Ensure they understand what leadership looks like, and they know the difference between a leader and a boss. For example, you might want to discuss the following qualities and features of a leader:

  • Knowledge (of a subject area, sport, etc.) and/or passion (for a cause)

  • Communication skills (listening, explaining, motivating)

  • Positive attitude, enthusiasm

  • Trustworthy and authentic

  • Confident and courageous (willing to take risks, take on responsibility)

  • Humble (willing to admit mistakes, share credit with others)

  • Planning, organizational and time management skills

  • Flexible (willing to change mind, change plan if necessary)

  • Sense of humour (fun to work with!)

3. Encourage your student to keep a healthy balance.

Between activities and school work, make sure they have some down time built into their schedule. Involvement in extracurricular activities should never be at the expense of school work or personal health. Besides, quality is often better than quantity. If your student doesn’t have enough time to lead the activity by themselves (or if they’re not comfortable with shouldering all of the responsibility), perhaps they can co-lead with another person.

If your student is comfortable with the role of a leader, they can take the next step and initiate something. Nothing demonstrates leadership like starting something new. If you review the bios of the winners of a top leadership award, you’ll see words and phrases like organized, initiated, trained, taught, coached, chaired, started, and so on. What all of these students have in common is they saw a need and filled it. They weren’t always the leader of everything they did, but they were in a leadership role at least once. And especially for major awards, almost all of the winners started something, not just participated in something.

And conversely, what if your student is not interested in leadership at all? In the insightful article, Leadership Roles: If Everyone is Leading, Who is Following? by Melissa Fentoni, she tells us that - contrary to the messages society bombards us with - the so-called normal, mediocre, average student is important, too. If your student isn’t interested in leadership he/she needs to know that, as a parent, we’re not disappointed. If our child is content to participate, join, and follow, well that’s just fine. This humble soul needs to know it’s OK not to lead.

If your student is interested in developing leadership skills, I can help them find opportunities and make a plan for the future. Please get in touch!

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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