Four Student Response Patterns to Formal Student Leadership Positions - and a Fifth. (2024)

In most schools, a select number of students are elected to student leadership positions in their last year of primary school, middle school, and high school. Having worked with many of these student leader groups over the past twelve years in both New Zealand and South Africa, I have observed four broad response patterns, by the elected students, to these roles. In the first version of my doctoral thesis, I wrote these up as personas, giving each one a name and a contextual cultural foundation. I then threaded them through the four phases of my research process as active participants with real-time thoughts and contributions. It seems my three academic assessors were not quite ready for my creativity and it was suggested that I remove them.

Whilst each of the student leader groups, I have worked with has a unique collective energy, individually, I see these four response patterns in almost every group. I felt that it was important to keep them in my thesis as they represented significant data for a study aimed at better preparing future leaders. They also brought the important element of “who counts” as well as “what counts” to the purpose of the research. So, I re-wrote them into a separate chapter and called them “student leadership response patterns” which were deemed more acceptable. My thesis titled “A Practitioner Inquiry and Framework for Seeding Entrepreneurial Leadership as Part of Identity Formation in Teenagers”, was passed in April this year. I would like to discuss these patterns, and why they are significant in this article.

Students who are elected as student leaders are generally awarded the position because they have shown leadership capabilities and/or traits and the purpose of the position is to further develop and hone these skills. This suggests that student leadership experience can set a student up for later leadership positions. While this is the theory, it is my concern, confirmed by my research, that the student leadership positions can in many cases, do the opposite. These response patterns can offer insightful information for educators who choose and work with their student leaders.

The first student representation is best described collectively in terms of their response as the “go along with it” group. Those I observe in this response pattern show uncertainty about their fit to the transactional model of leadership prevalent in many schools. The transactional model requires certain traits in their elected leaders to uphold the hierarchical school structure and relies on rewards and punishments to hold it all together. Whilst experiencing pride in being noticed by their teachers and selected as a student leader, those who show this response also convey an uncomfortable inner tension between what the school structure expects of them, and how their friends have come to know them outside of such a formal role. They wonder, mostly silently, how simply enforcing rules that they have no say in, reflects authentic leadership.

The second student representation I have noticed is the “I do not buy into this role” pattern. These responders blatantly express their disdain for the student leadership role to which they have been assigned. So why are they there? Their election often happens due to a long family history with the school where past family members had been elected as leaders and had performed the role well within the school's expectations. Such long family histories often involved ongoing financial backing from families who expect recognition of their contributions by means of leadership roles extended to their children. The “I do not buy into this” pattern responders are most often found in private or more privately funded public schools that pride themselves on their historical traditions, largely adopted from the school’s founders, commonly of British heritage in the countries in which I work. These pattern responders are also found in schools that, due to a policy of inclusion, have elected students representing diverse ethnic backgrounds. Those of different ethnicities do not buy into their election process as genuine. They withdraw into quiet contempt and do the very least possible to contribute or partake in the leadership group activities and discussions.

The third student response representation I observe most often is the “I can be what you want me to be” pattern. These responders, in their desire to please and gain recognition, embrace the role entirely and are often awarded the highest honour of head prefects of their schools. Teachers are likely to note these students as standing out as high achievers within the school system from early on in their high school careers. I learned more about the feelings of leadership learning longevity from these pattern responders in the entrepreneurial leaders’ interview process, as they reflected on their student leadership experiences. In phase two, participants who had embraced their leadership role within this response pattern described how, when school finished, they felt deposited at the beginning of their college or university experience with no sense of their authentic selves and little idea of how leadership applied to them. Several of the interview respondents noted that friends of theirs who had been the prefects had not succeeded in what they described as "real-world leadership" once school finished.

The fourth student response pattern is the “Leadership is a collective effort” group. I can best describe this group by means of a story from my field experience. In December 2015, I arrived at a school on the north island of New Zealand to train their selected final-year student leaders. This was a large group of 34 young men, mostly of Māori and Pacifica descent. They were a cheerful and rowdy group, and their teacher took some time to get them settled down. As I was about to begin, one student arrived late in an obviously distressed state. He was of Pākehā (white European) descent and of noticeably smaller stature than most of the group. The teacher took the opportunity to make an example of his tardiness and directed him to stand up and sing the New Zealand national anthem on his own in front of 33 of his classmates and two, still unintroduced, trainers. As the student started to sing, his eyes downcast and his voice shaking, his 33 co-leaders jumped to their feet and sang alongside him. They sang loudly as they stood proudly together. This group demonstrated the power of a culturally different shared or collective leadership approach.

There is also a fifth pattern responder to student leadership positions, possibly the most concerning one. This is the most common one represented by the majority of students for the year group, those who are not elected as student leaders. The parallel beliefs of “only leaders do leadership” and “I am not a leader” render many of our future leaders leaving school believing that they do not have leadership traits or potential. The successful entrepreneurial leaders who participated in my research confirmed this belief and told stories of how they had managed to overcome such beliefs through life experiences after school.

The prevailing question to each response pattern is “How will this experience of leadership as a student translate to their future leadership roles? “ In many cases, it doesn’t - which is one of the reasons why many leadership writers talk of an ongoing and escalating global leadership crisis. But to expect the school structure of leadership to change, even with this information, is not a reasonable or practical expectation. The awareness of these response patterns and more open discussions about how to instill a leadership identity and develop leadership abilities for students, by the school leaders, can certainly assist. It is my hope that this article provides some insights for such awareness and discussion.

An approach we trialed successfully in my research study, was to introduce a leadership literacy intervention course for first-year high school students. The course was designed to kick start what is termed academically as a personal leadership identity for all students, with foundational learning in self–awareness, self–leadership, and the positive influence of others. Leadership is best developed as an inside-out process of self–awareness, and self-leadership than an outside-in process of leadership skills learning. We have continued this work post-trial for first-year high school students and will be launching a brand new course for grade 11/year 12’s in the next few weeks. These courses are delivered online and have been designed to integrate into time slots to suit each school differently.

Thank you for staying with me if you are still reading. The intention of my articles are to share research and insights and not to sell products. There is no link here to “buy now” but please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you would like to talk further about our work, what we currently have on offer, and what we are planning in the near future, to assist schools to better prepare our future leaders. You are welcome to email me directly at

Four Student Response Patterns to Formal Student Leadership Positions - and a Fifth. (2024)


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Jun 11, 2022

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