The Problem With Leadership Programs

Words by: Simone Kealy
Art by: Natalie Tran

I have attended five leadership programs, been on student exchange, was part of my local youth council and had many leadership roles throughout my primary and secondary school years.

These experiences were amazing, and I am so grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in them. However, the more I think about them, the more I realise the inherently problematic mentality behind some of these programs, particularly when it came to the way they emphasised the importance of changing yourself.

Now I want you to put a finger down for every time you’ve heard “you’ll come out of this a new and improved version of yourself.” I remember it all too well — “trust us, you’ll look back on this program and see how much it impacted you!” The worst part? It’s easy to believe too, being an impressionable teen who knows nothing more than the systemic ‘strive to be better’ environment that surrounds us today.

In one particularly notable program, we could only send our family letters, in another, we couldn’t con- tact our family at all, and in most, we woke up early and went to bed late. We were exhausted and packed together like sardines, but we were still being sold the same narrative, that this program would change us for the better, and of course, we believed it.

The problem for me was that before these programs, the thought of needing to change hadn’t entered
my mind. As a young teenager, all I cared about was school, my friends, and reading the most recent YA novel. I wasn’t thinking about my flaws or any self- improvement strategies. When I first started participating in leadership programs, all of a sudden, I was made to dissect my deficiencies. It was a confronting and mind-altering experience that made me feel anxious and concerned. When I had to speak about how I had improved at the end of the program, I felt this strange mix of embarrassment, shame and vulnerability. What I had said didn’t feel right, or genuine; it felt forced, because, well, we were forced.

I think it’s time to change the narrative. What I think would be most beneficial is the encouragement to pursue your skills and strengths, rather than targeting these self-acclaimed weaknesses. In one program, we had to write positive notes about our peers, which were then put into shoeboxes with their names decorated on them. The special feeling of opening up my box to see slips of paper filled with encouraging words warmed my heart. Not once did the activity force us to talk about self-improvement, yet I found it had the most positive impact. My confidence skyrocketed and I was inspired to do what I enjoyed.

I will be forever grateful to that program and the people who were involved.

To my 15-year-old self, I want to say this:

You are not broken, you do not need to change. You are kind, you are smart, and you are enough.

Please don’t let a leadership program tell you otherwise.

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