Methods: In order to define youth leadership from the perspective of young people, focus groups and interviews were conducted with adolescents in grades 7-11 at a public secondary school (n=128), and youth participants of a neighborhood after-school program at two public housing communities (n=22). The majority of youths were Latino/a, with a smaller proportions of Black and White youths; about half of all participants were first generation immigrants. All youths resided in low-income, urban neighborhoods and attended schools with a high proportion of students eligible for free/reduced lunch. The constant comparative method of analysis was used to ground findings in the words of adolescents themselves. Coding was carried out by the three authors with regular consultations to discuss emergence of new codes and evolution of analytic categories.
Results: While youths offered a range of definitions of leadership, most definitions referenced agency and power in some form. For this group of adolescents, leadership was associated with purposive action, or agency, whether for the benefit of others (most common), for one's own benefit (least common), or choosing actions that align with institutional norms. Leadership was also associated with power relations. Although some young people described a collective form of power, most understood power as being distributive, or power over someone else. Adolescents discussed barriers to becoming leaders, both internal (“I get frustrated”) and external (“peer pressure,” “negative environment”), which highlighted the tension between being collectively oriented and needing to resist the collective to “follow a good path.” Youths also discussed the pressures of being “perfect” or “good,” which was in their minds linked with being a leader.
Implications: These findings suggest that leadership development interventions for low-income, urban adolescents should be mindful of the assumptions and definitions of leadership that youths bring with them. For the adolescents in this study, leadership was associated with a collectivist orientation, yet barriers to becoming a leader pitted young people against the collective and appeared almost insurmountable. Successful interventions should aid young people in developing more accessible pathways to leadership.