Youth leadership: in search of character and grit

If I said “Leaside has character,” would you agree? I often use and hear this phrase when people describe our ’hood. Most people would have no problem accepting the fact that ‘character’ plays a decisive role in the life of places and individuals alike. As a Leaside parent with a 12- and a 15-year old, I was curious to learn more about the ways youth in Leaside are exercising their ‘character muscle’ given the role it plays in life. So, this month I set out to update myself on what’s available for our youth aged 13-18. The task has taken on a new significance now that I have witnessed the changes affecting co-curricular programming at schools as a result of the pandemic.

Is it possible consistently to turn people of promise into people of character? Maybe, and at least one local school aspires to that mission. What I do feel is this: no individual parents, schools, teachers, programs, or part-time jobs can truly say they have the blueprint for character-building because it is a lifelong process. It really does take a village, plus every one of our promising youth is unique, requiring unique approaches.

Young people are taught in most aspects of their lives except character-building

I feel somewhat qualified to start the conversation about this topic, having spent the past five years teaching in a business school at the university level (closer to youth), and being certified as a registered facilitator 12 years ago for the global Virtues Project initiative that started here in Canada. “The Virtues Project began with an idea – that all children are born with the virtues in potential, and that when parents and educators awaken these gifts of character, we can change the world.” The project identified 52 virtues (traits) referred to as “gifts of character.” Our work as facilitators is to locate and “shine” these “gems” (positive character traits) within individuals, in order to boost their confidence and strengthen their resilience by embracing the “language of virtues.”

There is no secret to identifying positive character traits; the real challenge is getting individuals to recognize and acquire these traits, strengthen them, and act upon them. These three actions will help our youth become leaders of tomorrow.

It is only with the repeated practice of meeting life’s challenges courageously through these ‘lived experiences’ (i.e. especially by enduring hardship and failure) that our young individuals will test and strengthen their positive character traits, thus developing their leadership capabilities and future potential. These particularly challenging aspects of ‘character building’ have been referred to as ‘grit’ – courage in the face of hardship, danger or challenge. Passion and perseverance are key character traits of grit, and ‘getting experience’ has proven to be a good way to acquire it.

A quick scan reveals that there are youth development programs rooted in athletics (e.g. the YMCA, Royal Lifesaving, school and local sports programming), other school programming (e.g. debate, DECA), the government-supported Cadet and Junior Canadian Ranger programs, the not-for-profit programs like Scouts, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the leadership path available at summer camp, or by volunteering. There are also a growing number of commercial businesses offering online and live courses of all stripes (e.g. Explorer Hop, Young Skillz, Outschool). There seems to be no shortage of purported youth leadership development options (and costs).

What about Leaside?

One approach actively promoted at all levels of government, but absent in Leaside, is an organization focusing on building the youth entrepreneurship skillset (innovation, strategic thinking, problem-solving, analytics, communication, creativity, people skills). Is there room for an entrepreneurship program dedicated to helping youth develop their management skills and business acumen by actually starting small ventures? Or hey, how about small ventures focused on the betterment of Leaside itself? It’s a win-win! Optimistically, there are government and non-government organizations we can partner with (e.g. Junior Achievement, Futurpreneur Canada, BDC) in addition to several provincial and federal funding schemes to support the launch of just such programs across the city (e.g. provincial funding for “strategic community entrepreneurship projects,” a youth business accelerator fund, and summer business startup funding).

In a nutshell, I have concluded that to get the type of local character-building youth development program(s) I am seeking for my kids, I may have to do the legwork to build something suitable myself. I am also counting on the fact there may be other parents in Leaside with similar ideas. The most important aspect of any plan we are interested in supporting will be the level of volunteers we can attract to support such a vision. I often comment on the quality of ‘talent’ in Leaside; now is the time to step forward and help make something happen. There are organizations willing to help us – we just need a bit of elbow grease to connect the dots. At minimum, it would be a good character-building exercise. Who’s with me?

What Leaside youth experiences help build character? What can we do to support the leadership development of Leaside youth? Would you be willing to volunteer time to help develop entrepreneurship skills for youth in Leaside? Let us know at leasidelife@gmail.com.

The Five Characteristics of Grit

1. Courage

2. Conscientiousness: achievement-oriented

3. Long-term goals and endurance: follow-through

4. Resilience: optimism, confidence, creativity

5. Pursuit of excellence

Source: Margaret Perlis, Forbes

About Glenn Asano 31 Articles
Leasider Glenn Asano is a partner and principal consultant for the strategy and business development practice at Centred Performance. He is also an Instructor with the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.