Students’ views on leaders and leadership

What do you understand by the term ‘leadership’? Who do you consider to be a good leader and what are the attributes that make them so? These were the questions researchers asked Middle Years students to gather their views and gain insights that could inform planning of school student leadership programs.

Associate Professors Anne Coffey and Shane Lavery, from the University of Notre Dame Australia, held focus group interviews with 72 students in Years 7-9, from 12 metropolitan schools in six states and territories. They have shared the responses in the journal Improving Schools.

Dr Coffey and Dr Lavery argue that if we’re to develop effective leadership programs for students, rather than simply imposing our own ideas there’s a need to understand the perspective of those most affected – the students themselves. Here’s how they responded to the three questions.

Good leaders are more than just heroes

The academics say the students they interviewed had ‘a more comprehensive view of leadership than someone who might simply be considered a hero’. Examples of good leaders fell into three broad groups:

  • National and international personalities: including human rights advocates and those ‘prepared to stand up for others’ such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai; and, sportsmen and women who encouraged others, such as Adam Goodes, Sir Donald Bradman, Cathy Freeman and Serena Williams.
  • Teachers and principals: in three of the 12 focus groups, students spoke about current and former principals as making a difference and ‘someone you can look up to and admire’; and participants in two of the groups mentioned past and present teachers as ‘setting an awesome example’ and being there for their students.
  • Family members: Students in one of the focus groups nominated parents and their close relatives as being good leaders, someone to look up to and someone with more experience who can give advice.

Students’ understanding of leadership

Themes from this part of the discussion included: teamwork and guiding others towards a common goal rather than just telling them; having the ability to delegate; being able to adapt to different situations; and being generous.

Coffey and Lavery write: ‘Participants from seven focus groups advanced the idea that leadership involved service. They noted that bad leaders “will just try and control everything”, “try and have all the power that they can get”, “do their own thing” and focus on “simply having the badge”.’ Students considered the essence of good leadership as thinking of everyone and putting others above yourself.

For study participants, leadership was ‘much more organic with opportunities arising spontaneously’.

Four dispositions of good leaders

When they were asked about the characteristics of a ‘good leader’ students said the qualities could be developed by anyone. Four interconnected dispositions emerged:

  • Integrity: all of the focus groups agreed on integrity as a key attribute – that they must have a good sense of justice and do ‘what’s right, not what’s easy’; they should set an example to others worth following and value others’ opinions.
  • Other-centred and relational: students said, for example, that leaders should ‘look at things from other people’s perspectives’, be inclusive and ‘never leave anyone behind.’
  • Courageous: nine of the focus groups highlighted this characteristic – the need to step up and out of your comfort zone, take responsibility and make hard decisions that might not always be popular; have the courage to stand up for others and for your beliefs; and ‘go that extra step forward and turn and idea into action’.
  • Inspirational: eight of the focus groups spoke about setting a good example for others; being inspirational requires having a vision, acting ‘professionally at all times’ and being an effective communicator (including listening to others).

Coffey and Lavery note two possible limitations to the study – it did not include any schools from ACT or New South Wales, and half of the students who participated were from independent schools.

Discussing the implications of the findings for schools, they say: ‘Providing opportunities for students to “practice” leadership in a safe setting would seem to be important for young adolescents.’ They add students’ understanding and views of leadership were in line with already established models ‘as exemplified in distributed, transformational and servant leadership’. With this in mind, they recommend school leaders review their student leadership programs for the middle years and listen to views and input from students when planning these programs.


Lavery, S., & Coffey, A. (2020). Middle school students’ views about leaders and leadership. Improving Schools.

What role does student voice play in the planning, implementation and development of student leadership programs in your school?

Are you a teacher involved in a student leadership program at your school? How could you use the questions posed in this study to improve the program and its relevance?