Building a Theory of Positive Youth Leadership Identity

Lindsay J. Hastings, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor and Director of
Nebraska Human Resources Institute
University of Nebraska – Lincoln
lhastings2@unl.edu

L.J. McElravy, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
University of Nebraska – Lincoln
lj.mcelravy@unl.edu

Introduction

The United States is poised to experience one of the largest transfers of leadership in its history, as evidenced by employed individuals aged 45 and over holding approximately 56 percent of all management occupations (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Reichard and Paik (2011) argue that waiting to adulthood to develop leadership is too late because children and youth are more malleable, and can demonstrate a greater impact from intentional development. The capacity of youth to experience leadership development as well as the necessity of that development provides meaning to the current paper.

Murphy (2011) outlines the current research on youth leadership and finds it wanting. She explains that the methodical study of leadership is found almost exclusively in adults; warning that not addressing leadership in children and youth leaves a lack of understanding as to the processes of human development that would help shape a model for leadership growth across a lifetime. Murphy suggests that the field of youth leadership development could be improved by the development of “appropriate leadership success indicators” and use of evaluation methods that are effectual (p. 33).

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to build a theory of positive youth leadership identity. We conceptualize positive youth leadership identity as an explicit theory of oneself as a positive leader, providing further conceptualization and potential for future assessment around
self-management in Murphy’s (2011) preliminary youth leadership model. Murphy and Johnson (2011) suggest that the two most frequently cited results of leadership development are leadership identity along with self-regulation (e.g., Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005), which are strongly associated with leadership effectiveness (Avolio & Hannah, 2008). Lord, Hall, and Halpin (2011) articulate the role of identity in leadership, arguing that identities are developed over a lifetime and reveal connections from adult leadership to childhood experiences. The current paper seeks to conceptualize positive leadership identity in youth in preparation for building an effectual measure.

“We define positive youth leadership as the dynamic relational influence process that promotes positive attitudes and/or behaviors in others and/or collective group action.”

Building upon previous definitions of youth leadership (e.g., MacNeil, 2006; Wang & Wang, 2009), we define positive youth leadership as the dynamic relational influence process that promotes positive attitudes and/or behaviors in others and/or collective group action. Based upon preliminary research studies (McElravy & Hastings, 2014a, 2014b, 2016) and an extensive review of the literature, we propose a higher order construct of positive youth leadership identity. The results of the preliminary studies are outlined below followed by a literature review that lead to the development of four proposed factors.

 

Results of Preliminary Studies

McElravy and Hastings’s (2014a, 2014b, 2016) studies examined the relationship between personality, trait-based emotional intelligence, cognitive and affective empathy, psychological capital (PsyCap), and self-perceived leadership skills in youth. The first McElravy and Hastings’s (2014a) study examined personality, trait-based emotional intelligence, and self-perceived leadership skills among (N=115) youth. While the regression model including all variables (age, gender, race/ethnicity, SES, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, and emotional intelligence) explained 35.3% (Adjusted R2; F=5.77, p<0.01) of the variance in self-perceived leadership skills, age and emotional intelligence were the only significant predictors. Furthermore, emotional intelligence explained over four times the amount of variance in self-perceived leadership skills than age.

The second McElravy and Hastings’s (2014b) study examined the relationship between psychological capital, cognitive and affective empathy, and self-perceived leadership skills among (N=46) youth. After entering cognitive and affective empathy and PsyCap (implicit measure) into a stepwise regression analysis, while including gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status in the model as controls, cognitive and affective empathy emerged as significant predictors of self-perceived leadership skills. The final stepwise regression model including the control variables and cognitive and affective empathy accounted for 31.5% (Adjusted R2; F=4.397, p<0.01) of the variance in self-perceived leadership skills.

In McElravy and Hastings’s (2016) study, a stepwise regression analysis was conducted to test the predictive value of personality, empathy, and psychological capital (both implicit and academic measures) on self-perceived leadership skills among (N=34) youth. After entering personality, empathy, implicit PsyCap, and academic PsyCap into the regression model, while controlling for SES and race and ethnicity, academic PsyCap emerged as the most significant predictor of self-perceived leadership skills. The final stepwise regression model including race and ethnicity, SES, and academic PsyCap accounted for 55.1% (Adjusted R2; F=12.492, p<0.001) of the variance in self-perceived leadership skills among the youth surveyed. However, academic PsyCap was the only significant predictor (β = .652; t = 4.77; p < .001).

“We propose that the higher order construct of positive youth leadership identity is comprised of four factors, namely motivation to lead, positive task affect in groups, social influence capital, and human relations capital.”

The results of all three combined studies suggest that youth who (a) understand and share in others’ emotions (cognitive and affective empathy—Joliffe & Farrington, 2006), (b) demonstrate an innate ability to successfully marshal their emotions and the emotions of others
(trait-based emotional intelligence—Van Rooy & Viswesvaran, 2004), and (c) generate the developmental state of high efficacy, hope, resiliency, and optimism (PsyCap—Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007) tend to rate themselves as having high leadership skills. These combined results serve as helpful preliminary data in the pursuit of conceptualizing and measuring youth leadership. Constructs related to empathy, emotional intelligence, and psychological capital provide initial theoretical grounding for the broader positive youth leadership identity construct. Based upon these preliminary research findings and an extensive review of the literature, we propose that the higher order construct of positive youth leadership identity is comprised of four factors, namely motivation to lead, positive task affect in groups, social influence capital, and human relations capital. Each factor is outlined in the following sections.

 

Motivation to Lead

Drawing from Chan and Drasgow’s (2001) definition of motivation to lead (MTL) as an individual’s decision to engage in leadership responsibilities, we define motivation to lead in the context of positive youth leadership identity as the willingness to engage in leadership positions and training and development. We include ‘training and development’ in a youth leadership context because youth likely have fewer opportunities than adults to pursue formal leadership positions. Thus, a young person may reasonably demonstrate motivation to lead through attending workshops, seminars, and programs designed to develop their leadership capacity.

Both Murphy (2011) and Avolio and Vogelgesang (2011) include motivation to lead in their youth leadership models. Murphy (2011) indicates that leadership roles will not likely be pursued without adequate desire or motivation. Avolio and Vogelgesang (2011) agree: “For individuals to gain leadership-rich experiences, they must be motivated to take on thoseexperiences in the first place” (p. 189). We propose that motivation to lead in the context of positive youth leadership identity includes leadership self-efficacy, the desire to develop into an effective leader, and leadership role occupancy.

Leadership self-efficacy—the belief that one has the capabilities and the psychological resources to meet leadership demands (Guillén, Mayo, & Korotov, 2015)—emerged as a significant predictor and developmental antecedent to motivation to lead (Chan & Drasgow, 2011). Murphy (2011) includes self-efficacy and motivation to lead in the self-management portion of her preliminary youth leadership model, and Avolio and Vogelgesang (2011) include leader self-efficacy and developmental readiness (where motivation to lead is situated) as influencing the development of leader self-concept.

The desire to develop into an effective leader pays tribute to the notion that youth may demonstrate motivation to lead through a motivation to develop their leadership capacity rather than pursue a formal leadership role. This desire may indicate a youth’s learning goal orientation (Dweck, 1986) applied toward leadership or a general desire for leadership learning. Including leadership role occupancy as part of motivation to lead, on the other hand, reflects a youth’s motivation to pursue formal leadership roles. Lord, Hall, and Halpin (2011) argues that leadership identities develop gradually as an individual steps into a new role, tries new experiences, and receives feedback.

 

Positive Task Affect in Groups

In the context of positive youth leadership identity, we define positive task affect in groups as a sense of positivity regarding accomplishing tasks with others and includes elements such as hopeful goal attainment, optimistic outlook of group work, collective orientation, and task orientation at a group level. The inclusion of positive task affect in groups reflects the results of McElravy and Hastings’s (2016) study where psychological capital (PsyCap) emerged as a significantly predictor of self-perceived leadership skills in youth.

While PsyCap has not been investigated much in youth, lower-order constructs such as hope and optimism have been either examined in youth populations or offered as important components to youth leadership. Results from Snyder et al.’s. (1997) study connected hope to positive outcomes in youth, indicating that children who demonstrated higher hope tended to connect themselves to positive outcomes, as opposed to attributing success to luck. Murphy (2011) echoed this sentiment in explaining why she includes optimistic style in her preliminary youth leadership model. Collective orientation stems from Mortensen, et al.’s (2014) qualitative study of National Youth Leadership Initiative participants which revealed collective action as one of the five key themes that described youth perception of what makes someone a leader.

Task orientation at the group level recognizes the critical importance of task orientation to task completion in groups. Huffmeier and Hertel (2011) provide evidence of the direct link between positive task affect and task accomplishments in groups.

 

Social Influence Capital

Social influence capital as a factor of positive youth leadership identity reflects the results of McElravy and Hastings’s (2014a) study that revealed trait-based emotional intelligence as a significant predictor of self-perceived leadership skills in youth. Additionally, Bukowski, Velasquez, and Brendgen (2008) describe peer influence as “essentially an idea about change. Its central claim is that a child’s behavior will change as a function of the child’s experiences with peers” (p. 126). With this description in mind, we offer social influence capital as the confidence one has in influencing others using social astuteness and suggest that social influence capital includes elements such as self-efficacy in social influence domain, self-perception of interpersonal influential capacity, and emotional intelligence (specifically social awareness and sociability).

Bandura (2006) references several meta-analytic studies (e.g., Holden, Moncher, Schinke, & Barker, 1990; Stajkovic, & Luthans, 1998) in arguing that perceived self-efficacy is influential in human self-development, adaption, and change. Evidence suggests that specific behaviors are better predicted by an individual’s domain-specific self-efficacy rather than general efficacy (Ashford, Edmunds, & French, 2010), thus including self-efficacy in social influence domain pays tribute to the influence of self-efficacy while recognizing that self-efficacy may manifest itself in multiple ways when contributing toward a positive youth leadership identity.

We included self-perception of interpersonal influential capacity to reflect that young people must accomplish projects and goals using influencing skills (Yip, Liu, & Nadel, 2006). The ability to influence others is associated with social status or rank as individuals with high-status are given social capital as they are placed in a position to influence their peers (Juvonen & Galván, 2008). Recchia (2011) qualitatively investigated early childhood leadership using observational data of identified preschool student leaders. Results indicated that preschool students described as leaders possess “a strong sense of self” and the ability “to hold on to that sense of self in interactions with others” (p. 45). Recchia points out that the identified preschool leaders possessed a highly developed understanding of the people and environment surrounding them and their place in it.

In further support of emotional intelligence’s place in youth leadership, Wang and Wang’s (2009) review of youth leadership development models indicated that interpersonal skills, notably emotional intelligence, are a critical part of team leadership. The results of Ward and Ellis’s (2008) study of (N = 180) Boy Scout participants revealed that one of the two highest predictors of positive followership ratings was a demonstrated willingness by the leader to provide social support. Ward, Lundberg, Ellis, and Berrett (2010) linked the concepts of relatedness and social support by arguing that as adolescents begin to pull away from their parents for emotional support, they look to peers to fill the void.

 

Human Relations Capital

With a belief that relationships are at the core of youth leadership, we define human relations capital as the confidence one has in developing authentic relationships using social skill. Again, since youth leaders will need to rely more on social skill than positional power, positive relationship-building may likely contribute to youth leadership success. Human relations capital as a factor of positive youth leadership identity reflects the results of McElravy and Hastings’s (2014b) study that revealed cognitive and affective empathy as significant predictors of self-perceived leadership skills in youth. To further conceptualize human relations capital, we propose that human relations capital is comprised of elements such as self-efficacy in relational domain, self-perception of relationship-building capacity, and empathy.

“We propose that human relations capital is comprised of elements such as self-efficacy in relational domain, self-perception of relationship-building capacity, and empathy.”

The results of Lerner et al.’s (2005) positive youth development (PYD) study offer several relevant reasons for including self-efficacy in relational domain, self-perception of relationship-building capacity, and empathy to describe human relations capital. Specifically, four out of the Five Cs for PYD include: (a) competence, the positive self-perception of one’s actions socially, (b) confidence, one’s overall self-efficacy and positive self-belief, (c) connection, positive and bidirectional relational and institutional bonds, and (d) caring and compassion, being sympathetic and empathetic.

Including self-efficacy in relational domain, again, acknowledges the influence of self-efficacy (Bandura, 2006) and reflects Lapieerrea, Naidoob, and Bonaccioa’s (2012) analysis of (N=137) relational dyads in assessing the impact of leaders’ relational self-concept, which revealed that leaders who demonstrate a more relational self-concept are more likely to provide mentoring to their followers. Relative to self-perception of relationship-building capacity, Mack et al. (2011), similar to Popper (2011), explain that a person’s early development of relationships is foundational for positive and healthy leadership in the future. Mack and colleagues (2011) concluded from their research on successful executives that “successful leaders tend to have securely anchored relationships in both personal and professional interactions and are better characterized as being more self-reliant and interdependent than independent” (p. 140).

Additionally, Rosenblum and Lewis’s (2008) argue that adolescents who demonstrate empathy are better able to expect and react to others’ emotional changes, appearances, and experiences. Kellett, Humphrey, and Sleeth (2006) assessed perceived emotional abilities related to leadership skills utilizing small group peer reports among (N=231) students. Results revealed that the emergence of relations leaders are linked to emotional abilities. Kellett et al. explain, “because perceptions of relations leadership require feelings of being understood and valued, it is important for a leader to accurately detect emotions and to experience and express empathy” (p. 157).

 

Conclusion

Recognizing the societal need for developing youth leaders given the impending sizeable leadership transfer and the critical importance of intentional early leadership development (Murphy, 2011; Reichard & Paik, 2011), this conceptual paper serves to answer Murphy’s (2011) call for the development of youth leadership research by building a theory (and ultimately, a measure) around positive youth leadership identity. Positive youth leadership identity—the explicit theory of oneself as a positive leader—and its four factors of motivation to lead, positive task affect in groups, social influence capital, and human relations capital provides further conceptualization around self-management in youth leaders and provides the necessary theoretical underpinnings for future psychometric assessment.

 

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Copyright © 2017 Lindsay J. Hastings & L.J. McElravy all rights reserved.