The Leaders of “Today” or “Tomorrow”?: How Should We Frame Youth Leadership? | By Emerson Csorba

On Monday, The Wanderer launched its Top 100 Edmonton Women in Business list, which has garnered some outstanding feedback, with institutions such as Northlands and MacEwan University sharing via press releases. Moreover, the Twitter response has been fantastic. As one of the project coordinators, I feel tremendous happiness in seeing the project come to fruition. It was only five months ago that the project was nothing more than an idea, shared over coffee and while kayaking out at the lake. In late November, when the project was three days away from a launch, we lost the vast majority of data and were forced to regroup before the New Year.

In the days following the Monday launch, the Wanderer project leads and editors who made the project a reality have been called the city’s “next” or “future” leaders. After all, the vast majority of Wanderer contributors are in their early twenties, either in university studies or in the first few years of professional life. Without question, the city-wide feedback is heart-warming and has made this week one of the best of 2013. However, I think it’s worth talking about how we frame leadership, particularly for our city’s youth. I take exception to the “next leader” label, and believe that it holds back much of our city’s potential.

Several months ago, I was presented the opportunity of speaking as a Canadian representative at the United Nations, as part of the International Youth Leadership Assembly. In a four-minute speech to about 400 young people from 74 countries, I spoke briefly about intergenerational dialogue, and the importance of viewing young people as leaders, rather than as the “next” or “future” leaders. Though it was difficulty to gauge the audience’s reaction to the speech, I can only hope that it encouraged some delegates to reflect on how they frame youth contributions to society.

The difference between referring to youth as “next” leaders or a community’s “current leaders” may seem insignificant; however, I think that the small terminological difference contributes to how youth shape their own capabilities and visions, and thus, the contributions that they can make in their communities. Simply put, when I hear that The Wanderer‘s (or any other youth organization’s)  leadership represents a city’s “next leaders,” I think that this limits what youth can achieve in the present. This is because the youth leaders come to see themselves as capable of creating incremental change in the future; doing anything of significance is reserved for those in their 30s, 40s and so on. It is really no surprise to me that so few Edmontonians in their 20s found start-up companies: most young people believe that business success or meaningful advocacy initiatives through non-profits may only exist somewhere in the future. Rather than make ambitious ideas a reality today, it is better to wait for several years, when one has “more life experience.”

When The Wanderer planned the Top 100 WiB project, much of the work took place in Roast, in various Second Cups and in coffee shops in Washington DC. Most team members balanced full-time studies and other jobs with the project planning. At several moments, I certainly questioned how a team of idealistic 20-somethings could launch a project that makes a meaningful impact across Edmonton. Thankfully, we persisted, and the results exceeded what we thought was possible.

In writing this article, I certainly do not want to imply that leaders in their youth need not listen to their colleagues in other generations. There is tremendous benefit to mentorship, as discussed in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Moreover, as shown in Michael Valpy’s Atkinson Series on social cohesion, published in the Toronto Star, Canadians display poor intergenerational dialogue, with low levels of trust between generations. These are issues that must be tackled in the present, because today’s young leaders will grapple with tremendous environmental, health and inequality problems that have festered during recent decades.

Edmonton is unique in that it has over 100,000 students across NAIT, MacEwan University and the University of Alberta. As a city with enormous potential, our youth leaders can play a significant role in how we move forward. Our Mayor, Don Iveson, defied expectations in earning the responsibility to guide the city in the years to come. Had Iveson listen to conventional wisdom, and decided to run in a future election, I doubt that Edmonton would be nearly as energetic and hopeful as it is today. He is but one example of what a city can accomplish when it defies the idea that young leaders must wait until some unspecified time in the future.

What I hope is that youth view themselves as the leaders of today – working in tandem with leaders across generations  – rather than as the leaders of tomorrow. In order for this to happen, I encourage all Edmontonians to reframe how they frame youth leadership. Though the distinction between a leader of “tomorrow” and “today” may seem inconsequential, the small terminological alteration can transform how youth see themselves. It is the kind of change in dialogue that encourages youth to take action today, and that can bring many more successful projects to Edmontonians.

CC photograph courtesy of the United Nations on Flickr. 

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