11 Features of Learning Organizations That Nurture Learner-Leaders

I seem to be reading more school mission statements stating that part of their purpose is to nurture young leaders. What does that look like? What does it take to do this? What does it mean for a school, community or learning organization to honor the learner, to hold students in high regard? I had a one-year executive leadership fellowship a few years ago that was transformational. The ideas, relationships, community, and coaching were all significant in my formation as a leader. As I think back on the experience, there was one feature that was more striking than anything else. I felt deep respect and honor from the mentors and coaches. They did not tout or highlight their expertise (although they had ample) or draw attention to the fact that they likely had superior wisdom on matters of leadership (although they certainly had more than at least one fellow). They had clear and high expectations, but there was also a refreshing openness to each of us taking our own paths.  In fact, it was communicated that this was the only way to become a leader. Great leaders know humility and followership, but there is also a part of leadership that requires the confidence to take steps on one’s own, even when there are voices of dissent.

So what about young people? How do we begin to nurture compassionate, humble, confident young leaders? What are the traits of an education that empowers learner-leaders? What sort of “features” lead to such development? I’m sure that there are many, but here are eleven to consider, things that we want to make a part of any learning organization that aspires to help with the growth and development of learner-leaders.


There is a time is listen and learn, but there is also need to develop and discover one’s own distinct voice. Too many strict rules, regulations, and instructions; and it makes it hard for a learner to discover or develop that voice.

Steven Covey shared four questions that lead to the defining of one’s voice: 1) What are you good at? 2) What do you love doing? 3) What needs can you serve? 4) What gives your life meaning and purpose…and what do you think you should be doing?

Learning organizations that honor the emerging learner-leader create space and opportunity to explore these questions. This often means teachers who are confident enough in their own voice that they don’t feel a need to constantly use it or let it dominate the learning space. It means inviting learners to have, develop and use their voice within the learning community…as much or more than the teachers.


It is hard to learn the consequences of your choices if you don’t have any choices. Not only is choice a great way to help learners see and take ownership in their own learning, but it is the only way to develop a sense of true responsibility. How can you be responsible when you have no choice in the matter? That is less about responsibility and more about compliance.  With this in mind, learning organizations committed to the learner-leader are places where learners have significant choice in the how, what, when, and why of learning.  This doesn’t mean that teachers fail to provide advice, redirect, point out some of the realistic non-negotiables in some contexts, and offer words of wisdom. It does mean that learners are becoming increasingly empowered to make important choices about their life and learning.


There is time to work on addressing one’s weaknesses, especially when they are holding us back from doing that which we believe we are called to do. However, great leaders build on their strengths. They are often surprisingly lopsided people. We certainly want to address or protect any Achilles heels before going into “battle”, but discovering, refining, and learning to use one’s strengths is a central part of schools interested in helping nurture leaders. Kids need to know, have humility, but also take pride in their strengths and those of others. As it stands, many learning organizations only value a select set of strengths, leaving out the chance to celebrate and nurture many strengths that are great assets in the rest of life.

Authentic Feedback

If we are really about nurturing true leadership, then we need to get at things that are authentic. Math can’t just be about taking tests and solving abstract problems. It has to also be about solving problems in the world with math. The same is true about writing, speaking, studying history and social studies, and the like. When learners are working on authentic problems and issues in the world, then feedback can become more authentic as well. Feedback is not just about grading someone, but it about helping them accomplish goals that are important to them and/or others in the world…helping them to refine and improve their work because they want to do so.


In most schools, failure is something to be avoided at all costs. Failing on an assignment is a character flaw. It is something to hide or about which one must be perpetually embarrassed. What about the importance of failure, the blessing of failure, and even failure as a badge of honor in some places like startup communities? A person who failed at a startup is sometimes seen as a great asset, not someone with a dark cloud or curse on them. Failure has to be completely reconsidered and reimagined in places that want to nurture strong leaders. Otherwise we risk developing people who spend hours trying to cover their tracks, point fingers, and not be able to suck the wonderfully nutritious lessons out of that wonderful and terrible gift called failure.


Many teachers note that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and yet there is rarely room to formulate, ponder, explore and answer personally developed questions in learning communities. Leaders learn to ask, consider and passionately pursue answers to questions. Where do we have space to nurture this in learners?

Behind the Curtain

Teaching and learning is not a show for students to watch. It is a participatory event. Why not invite students behind the curtains, involving them in everything from lesson planning to assessment, curriculum design and development to space design. Let them not only be audience members but actors, producers, directors, stagehands, and playwrights.


We are talking about young people. Education without patience is little more than a strategy to strain out those who can most benefit from it. I am referring to patience with learners who are struggling, growing, exploring, experimenting, not getting it, regressing, finding their way through awkward changes, messing up, trying to figure out the rapid changes in themselves and the world, testing boundaries, and trying on roles. This doesn’t mean tolerating anarchy or not setting up boundaries, but it does mean recognizing that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Different learners will develop different knowledge, skills and character traits in different ways and at different times.


The 45-minute course schedule has to go if we are going to be serious about this. School is almost the only place in life where all our life activities are carefully broken up into small chunks. The only time to actually go deep into something is outside of the learning organization. Leaders must discover what it is like to go deep into something, to spend hours, days and weeks lost in a question, project, or problem. This helps develop perseverance and character. Survey learning doesn’t have the ability to nurture these same traits.

One of the more important insights of a leader is to know what is important and what is not, and to invest one’s time and energy heavily in the things that are most important. Why not give learner-leaders a chance to practice this?


The freedom to act on one’s own,­ not just by compulsion, is critical for leaders. This does not need to mean that one ignores all authority, but it does mean empowering people to see themselves as having the freedom and capacity to take responsibility for their own life and choices. Without this we might have compliant followers, but we don’t get leaders.

Leadership and Followership Opportunities

Of course, there is an important eleventh trait as well. These learning organizations that are committed to nurturing leadership provide chances for them to experience what it is like to follow and lead, taking time to reflect and debrief these experiences. Amid this, they experience each of the other ten traits as well.

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