8 Vital Tips for First-Time Leaders

Image shows birds migrating in a v-formation. One little-noted reality of advancing in school is that you are likely to be called upon, increasingly, to take on positions of responsibility and leadership.

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Yet leadership skills are very rarely taught as part of a school curriculum. At ORA, we teach leadership as a stand-alone course for students aged 13-15 and 16-18, and as an afternoon workshop in our New Perspectives and Broadening Horizons programmes. But most of the time, when students are expected to take on leadership roles, they’re meant to figure it out as they go along.
Leadership roles come in many forms.They can mean becoming a prefect or a Head Girl or Boy. They can mean running a school club or being elected to school council. They can mean being asked to run a session of a scout group or even becoming involved in the youth wing of a political political party. Whatever the leadership role is that you have to take, here are our top tips to succeed.

1. Fake it until you make it

Image shows an actor in a mask.
First-time leadership can make you feel like you’re acting a part, but that’s normal.

Almost everyone gets nervous when they’re asked to take on a position of responsibility. No matter how many people they’ve managed, how large the crowds they’ve faced (and smaller crowds can often be more frightening than large ones) or how many accolades they’ve won, almost everyone is intimidated by taking on roles where the buck stops with them, particularly when there’s the possibility of public humiliation.
While different techniques for combating those fears work for different people, one trick that seems to work more often than others is simply to pretend that you feel confident even when you don’t. Treat it like an acting job – how would a confident person be behaving if they were in this situation instead of you?
People will usually take their cues from your behaviour – if you seem confident, in charge and as if you know what you’re doing, they will assume that you are. The most obvious example of this is the wonderful power you can wield over people just by wearing a high-visibility vest or carrying a clipboard, but it works if you can act as if you’re in charge with no props at all.
Another side of this is to take steps to make yourself and your event seem more successful. If you’re expecting 30-50 people to turn up to the meeting you’re running, don’t put out 50 chairs and risk nearly half of them being empty – put out 30, have spare chairs reasonably handy, and impress people with the popularity of the event when you have to get more chairs out to accommodate everyone.

2. Remember that social skills can be learned

Image shows a collage of photographs of people's faces.
There are also techniques you can learn to help you with the challenging task of remembering lots of names.

A lot of the nitty-gritty of leadership – how to handle eye contact with a large group, how to have a confident handshake, or even just how to interact with a group of people when you’re the one in charge – can seem intimidating when you haven’t done it before. What’s more, culturally we’re usually led to expect that these skills are inherent. You’re either good at instructing people, or you’re not. You either have social skills or you don’t.
This isn’t true. While some lucky people can handle these kinds of social interactions instinctively, most of us can’t, and have to learn these skills. It might feel silly, but you can ask a friend to practise handshakes with you. If you’re trying to get better at presenting to a group of people, watch a video of yourself (with the sound off if that makes it less embarrassing) and see whether you’re giving the impression you intended. The internet is full of advice for budding leaders on these topics – which demonstrates how normal it is to need it.

3. Always say thank you

Image shows a bowl of choc-chip cookies.
If you’re working with volunteers, a few treats can go a long way.

Aside from being good life advice in general, this is very important if you are in charge of any group of people, in any circumstances. Let’s say you’re running the local branch of your country’s animal rescue association, at the head of a team of five or six volunteers. One of them goes out on a Saturday to help someone with an injured animal even though she normally only volunteer on Fridays. Another does an extra job for the national bursar of the organisation. A third just does their normal volunteer duties, which mostly consist of collecting funds and serving tea.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying that the first one did it because they care about animals, not for you. The second did it for the national bursar, so she can thank him, not you. The third one just did their normal volunteering work, so why should they get special thanks for that?
The thing to remember is that when you take on a leadership role, you represent the organisation as a whole, not just yourself. A faceless organisation may not take the time to thank its volunteers personally – whether or not they’ve done something above and beyond the call of duty – so it’s part of your role to take that on. This applies even if the people involved are being paid; extra thank yous cost you nothing (and thank yous in the form of cake for the whole team cost you very little) but they can make all the difference in how much people respect and appreciate your leadership.

4. Delegate with confidence

Image shows a woman showing a man something on a laptop, while he takes notes.
Don’t be afraid to hand over important tasks to competent members of your team.

There’s the saying that if you want a job doing well, you should do it yourself. In all its cynicism, this may be right – but it isn’t good leadership. If you want the other people in your team to feel as if their skills and knowledge are appreciated, then you need to develop the key management skill of delegation: figuring out which tasks you can pass on to someone else, that they will able to do well and not feel overwhelmed and under-stretched by. This requires some knowledge of your team: who’s good with deadlines, who’s a perfectionist, who will try to take on more than they can handle and so on. There will probably be some teething problems while you use trial and error to figure this out, and that’s normal.
The corollary to this is that as a good leader, you will want to build something that can last and isn’t dependent on you. If you’ve spent three months planning a fundraiser and then break your leg the day before the event, you’ll want to be sure that your team will be able to cope without you. Being a good leader isn’t about doing everything; it’s about organising everything so that if need be, it can be done without you. This is important even aside from the possibility of emergencies – if this is your first leadership role at school, you will want the team or club or society that you’ve built to continue even after you’ve gone on to university and beyond.

5. Double-check everything you can

It’s not the opposite of number 4 to suggest that it’s also useful to keep checks on whether things that were planned have actually been done. If you’re planning an event, keep a list of the minimum things required for it to be a success, and be sure to double-check that they’ve been done in good time. It’s micromanagement to double-check the type of snacks that someone working with you has ordered; it’s good management to double-check that they’ve been ordered at all.

6. Figure out what the worst jobs are – and do them yourself

Image shows a mop.
Whatever the jobs are that your team finds unpleasant, make sure you join in the hard work.

It seems an obvious point that if you’re running an event and the toilets need cleaning, you will earn the respect of your subordinates much more if you get involved and take that on yourself.
But doing the worst jobs yourself goes further than this. It also means being aware of the needs of the team you’re in charge of and making sure you take on the jobs that are worst for each person.
What does this mean, practically speaking? Let’s go back to the animal rescue organisation. People who have joined such an organisation are presumably OK with walking dogs in the rain or cleaning out pet cages, which might seem to be the most obviously unpleasant task to do. Lots of people, though, are anxious about making phone calls, particularly when they have to negotiate or ask people for money – so the best thing you could do as a leader in these circumstances is to put down the umbrella or the cleaning products, and pick up the phone. This comes as part and parcel of delegation – you figure out what your team can do happily and well, and you do what’s left over.

7. Blame is unhelpful

Image shows a dictionary open to the word 'scapegoat'.
Not every problem needs a scapegoat.

Even with all that great delegation, double-checking and generally first-class leadership in the world, it is inevitable that eventually, something will go wrong – and it will probably be someone’s fault. The venue will have been double-booked, or the flyers will have a prominent misprint, or all the snacks ordered for a vegan fundraiser will be meat-flavoured; there is a huge variety of possible types of disaster.
Another skill of leadership, therefore, is to decide how to respond when these things happen. It’s very easy to find a culprit and wish to wreak vengeance on them for spoiling your carefully laid plans, but that’s seldom helpful. If someone hasn’t been pulling their weight or their planning has been lacking, your role is to work out how you can avoid it happening again. That might be lecturing them on their failings (some people find this helpful – needing a telling-off to resolve the situation and move on) but just as often it’ll be ensuring that they end up with tasks they’re better suited for in future.

8. Enjoy yourself

Image shows three people putting up a paper chain.
Leadership roles can be stressful, but they can also be rewarding.

Done right, a leadership role can be hugely rewarding. Not only do you get to enjoy the successes of your own work, but you get to see the success of your team too. It’s important to step back from time to time and take pride in what you’ve achieved as a leader – especially when it starts to feel like a lot of hard work.
It’s also important to enjoy yourself to set an example to the rest of your team. If you’re organising something huge and stressful, part of your responsibility is to set an example for everyone else. That can be giving everyone permission to get a little bit cynical and grumble by doing so yourself, or perking everyone else up with your own cheerfulness; it’ll be up to your judgment to work out which is appropriate.
Your first leadership role can be daunting, but what you learn will be invaluable in future. Best of luck!

Image credits: banner; actor; names; cookies; delegation; mop; scapegoat; having fun.