What makes good leadership? Which are the keys features and how can you – and more importantly – your work have the best possible impact on your youth group?

Boss versus leader - What makes a good leader?

It depicts the behavior of a boss versus the one of a leader, the boss seats and commands the workers to carry the mission, while the leader is in the front, guiding the workers.

The Cambridge dictionary defines the word leader as “a person in control of a group, country, or situation”, but a leader, especially a good leader, should be much more than that. Some people can take the role of being in charge in an authoritarian and bossy manner, but a leader first of all should be a guide, encouraging the team towards the goal. And do that by using the strenghts of the team, being aware of their weaknesses while being self aware, managing their own strengths and weaknesses, taking opportunities from the outside as well as risk managing and mediating threats. In volunteering their role is also to connect the group with the local community, as well as organize activities and reflect learning with volunteers.

A leader should also have some competences, or work on them during their leadership. The Bussines Dictonary defines competence as “A cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act effectively in a job or situation. Competence indicates the sufficiency of knowledge and skills that enable someone to act in a wide variety of situations.”, and from this principle we take the importance of the leader having designed competences to help their colleagues and other participants.

Competences of a leader

When training leaders to your work camps, INEX always considers that there are three components of competence:

It's a diagram with “Skill”, “Knowledge”, and “Attitude” that all combine to “Competence in the middle”. In the image, there is also some specification for which part: Knowledge is the theoretical understanding of a subject = understanding of information. Skills are the ability to perform practical tasks Attitudes and values are personal perspectives towards a subject based on motivation, personal goals, preferences, and self-concept = internal drivers of behaviour.

For example, for having the competence of riding a bike your knowledge could be “how the bike works”, “how to use the pedals”; your skills “coordination”, “balance”; and your attitude can be “liking to ride the bike”. These three aspects together are going to create your ability, and competence, to actually ride the bike. To help you imagine what we practically mean with competence, here are some examples how competences are linked with situations that can happen in our real life or while volunteering.

Those competences can emerge through various sub tasks and consideration in the build-up of the situation or the objective.

  • Situation 1: Organisation of a multi-day international meeting
    • Sub-tasks: communication with participants, considering the different expectations and experiences of the participants, being able to adapt spontaneously to satisfy the needs of the group, prioritising individual needs and keeping track of the group objectives.
    • Competences: leadership (if you’re coordinating), communication, creativity and problem solving, flexibility, project management.
  •  Situation 2: Applying for a job and preparing for an interview
    • Sub-tasks: effective written and oral communication, analysis of the job description, ability to prove computer literacy skills, targeted self-promotion, promote flexible attitude.
    • Competences: work with information, computer literacy, promotion, effectivity, communication, flexibility.
  • Situation 3: Helping foreigners find their way
    • Sub-tasks: having an open-minded and resourceful communication, being flexible and aware of your own environment.
    • Competences: intercultural communication, foreign language, creativity and problem solving.

Keep in mind that there are two types of competences that can be used in these situations. “Hard competences” (sometimes referred to as “hard skills”, but the word “competence” covers not only skills, but also knowledge and attitudes, it better match this discussion) are something you can learn from books or by heart and practice by hands, such as math, accounting, programming or IT in general, graphic design, writing articles, statistics, etc. For example when riding a bike, the process of how you ride a bike is a ‘hard competence’ – you must know how it works and how to balance, how to use the pedals and coordinate yourself.

And “Soft competences” are the activities that you do to manage yourself and manage or work with other people, such as communication, flexibility, independence, teamwork, or leadership. When going for a bike trip, soft competence you need is for instance to plan your trip (distance, time, having water with you…), communicate and plan with other people that go for a trip with you, etc.

Steps to good leadership

Communication and feedback
In order to be a constructive leader, we need to learn how to communicate effectively. Therefore we have to be aware that people communicate on 2 levels: the emotional and the practical one. For conflict prevention we need to separate them so that we first pay attention to emotions, then we can focus on practicalities. These two types of communication can be differentiated by asymmetric and symmetric, that can overlap. We can use both approaches just to be aware of them and know how, when and why we are utilising them. Feedback is used when there’s a need to change somebody’s behaviour and/or flow of the situation. In those cases we need to express clearly what we would like them to do differently (“I would be happy if you…”) and make an agreement on how to do it next time.
Basic principles Receiving Feedback What is not good feedback
* Right time, right place (ASAP after something happened, when we have enough time and nobody is disturbing us…) * Speak for yourself * Say “Thank you” * Make sure you understand, ask questions if necessary (but do not defend yourself) * Do not deny emotions of your partner * generalization (“evwery time, always, never,…”) * predictions (“you did it on purpose”) * judging, labelling * unrequested adivce * irony
During development of your voluteering or project there are regular opportunities to offer feedback after each activity to those that delivered it. Suggestions, new ideas, and listening to different opinions generated new learning as a result of this feedback. Feedback can also be used as a form to validate someone’s actions, reaffirming they are in the right path of action.
A leader should also be able to mediate the conflicts in the group. Mediation is a dynamic, structured and interactive process to try to find out what is behind a conflict, what kind of emotions, fears and sense of injustice are, to come to an agreement between the parties. You should stand as a mediator, a person that assists and helps to resolve the conflict between the disputing parties by using specialized communication and negotiation techniques. In mediation, the parts in conflict take their position depending on their needs. The things that can influence the way that people behave in a conflict are:
  • the importance of conflict’s subject
  • the importance of the relationships with your partner
  • fears
  • assumptions about the future, about what the other will think about them
  • sense of injustice
  • ability and motivation to solve the conflict
Mediators have to use a wide variety of techniques to guide the process in a constructive direction and to help the parties find an optimal solution. Mediators facilitate the interaction between the parties and promote an open communication between them. Some of the communication techniques that mediators can use are:
  • try to find something they have in common
  • find something positive
  • show interest
  • encourage
  • pay attention to emotions
  • remind of reality
  • be specific
  • non-judgmental
The objective of mediation is to come to an agreement but sometimes this is not easy. In this case, is important to keep in mind the technique B.A.T.N.A – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.
Helping the group atmosphere
As a leader it is important to help your group have a good and inclusive atmosphere, this will help all the participants feel validated and comfortable in the group. And how to create a positive atmosphere in the group? Here are several ideas:
  • use team building activities to create a friendly environment and build trust among the participants
  • show people you care about them, treat them individually as well as a group
  • create opportunities for special shared moments
  • be creative, make surprises or long term games
  • give participants enough free time and show them some relaxation techniques
  • create a challenging atmosphere in some occasions, but safely
Material improve-handbook

Tips from INEX!

Don't mix reflection and evaluation

In order to be a constructive leader, we need to learn how tThere is a difference between these two and it is important to know precisely which one you want to focus on during the particular activity.

During the reflection, people connect lessons learned from the activities with their world, reflecting on how they can use the learning experience in their own personal and professional lives. The main purpose of this is to add value to the experience. Reflection enables us to name our knowledge, skills, attitudes – competences, observe and become more aware of what and how we learn or behave in certain situations.

Evaluation is focused on something different – it helps us assess some features which are important. It contains questions as if you found the accommodation appropriate, how would you assess the camp leaders or what did you learn and will use when you come home. Evaluation usually provides information to the organizers or the leaders, how the participants assess the project and what can be done differently next time.o communicate effectively. Therefore we have to be aware that people communicate on 2 levels: the emotional and the practical one. For conflict prevention we need to separate them so that we first pay attention to emotions, then we can focus on practicalities. These two types of communication can be differentiated by asymmetric and symmetric, that can overlap. We can use both approaches just to be aware of them and know how, when and why we are utilising them.

Feedback is used when there’s a need to change somebody’s behaviour and/or flow of the situation. In those cases we need to express clearly what we would like them to do differently (“I would be happy if you…”) and make an agreement on how to do it next time.

Different Learning Styles - Diverse Methods

People learn in various ways. Somebody needs to hear things to realize and remember; others need to visualize it or talk to somebody to properly understand. Some people need books and resources to read about the thing and form their own opinion. Groups of participants in educational activities are always a mixture of all these. It means that during activities and their reflection, it is advised to mix different methods to make sure most of the participants go through it and learn as much as they can. You can for example use sharing in pairs, metaphoric methods, individual reflection, learning diaries, artistic methods…

Ask good questions

As a leader it is important to help your group have a good and inclusive The Basis of reflective activities is to ask the right questions that will help the participant with reflecting their own experience. Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking. Questions can lead to movement and action on key issues; by generating creative insights, they can ignite change.

What makes a question powerful? It generates curiosity in the listener, stimulates reflective conversation, is thought-provoking, surfaces underlying assumptions, invites creativity and new possibilities, generates energy and forward movement, channels attention and focus inquiry, stays with participants, touches a deep meaning, evokes more questions. A powerful question also has the capacity to “travel well” – to spread beyond the place where it began into larger networks of conversations throughout an organisation or a community.

The advantage of questions before answers is that questions lead to exploring and answers lead to closing. Close questions also close communication. These are yes/no questions. We try to avoid them. Sometimes they are appropriate but with more open questions we stimulate more reflective thinking in a deeper level of conversation.

Questions such as Why?, How?, What? Are the ones that help a volunteer/participant to move forward, that provokes thoughtful exploration and evokes creative thinking.

When you ask a powerful question, it may happen that the questioned person will be quiet. A question can cause many things in a person, it can open a new door to which they don’t have an answer. Silence is a good sign that the question started a process in a person, it means that a person is thinking about something. Try to be friends with the silence, don’t be afraid, this is also a part of a personal support.

It is also very possible that there is more than one answer to the question or that there is no real answer. That’s why a person starts to explore. It does not need to find a solution or an action right away, and it is not necessary to offer an answer or solution to the person.

Source: Vogt, E., Brown, J., and Issacs, D. (2003). The Art of powerful questions: Catalyzing insight, innovation, and action. Whole Systems Associates: Mill Valley, CA.

Take the group into account
When considering the reflection tool, it is also important to take the size of your group into account. Some methods might work easily with 5 but worse with 15 participants. Also, if you have people in the group, who have rather lower communication levels in English or any other language you use, select more simple methods with less speaking to reflect the learning. In this way, they will be more involved and will express more freely. Another option is that they work in groups in their own language, in order to have a deeper discussion.
Timing is important
It is also important to think about timing when you’re doing the activity. We suggest diversifying and changing the way you work throughout the process. At the start of the activity, it is good to do more work in a large group since the group building process is still very important at this stage; people are getting to know each other and finding their place in the group. On the other hand, working in small groups can create a greater feeling of security. Alternatively, you could combine the two. Towards the end of the activity it can be good to work more with individual reflection (for instance using the IM-PROVE app) since the participants are the ones who will have to transfer the lessons learned into their own context. The timing of the learning reflections are the best at the end of each day, or at the start of each day. It can also be less frequent, as every second day or just twice/three times during the project – depending on your group, priorities, possibilities, energy in the group…
Be careful of personal boundaries

Some issues can have a negative effect on the reflection and learning process, such as cultural sensitivity and personal boundaries. If you cross someone’s personal boundaries they might close themselves or get into a panic zone. Also, games where people drop out one after the other stop their active participation in the reflection process.

Last but not least

A personal learning journal for short reflections could also be used for daily use in addition to other tools and methods. At the end of the day give volunteers/participants ten to fifteen minutes to reflect on what happened during the day. They can write the situations into the diaries and reflect on their learning from each of these situations. As it depends on their personal learning style it may happen some will never use it, but they can for instance take photos and at the end of the day, they can choose one that presents their learning moment of the day.

Dealing with different backgrounds

It is important to be empathetic and respectful of other people’s lived experiences.

When dealing with a diverse group it is important not to separate your group from bigger and broader political contexts. Although attempts are made to ensure that all relationships are equal, the legacy of colonialism/racism/patriarchy infiltrates these spaces. Therefore, issues of power and privilege need to be negotiated constantly as opposed to assumed to not exist because we are all socially just and engaged participants. Participants must be intentional about avoiding saviour mentality and reproducing the same bias we fight against.

A man drinking mattoni water in Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic.
How to overcome the challenges?
Entering a global cooperation with different power structures is a very complex and uneasy step to take. In fact, only through an actual partnership, one can learn many lessons and acquire a significant experience. First of all you should always be aware of the existing power structures. We live in a world with a system that has developed many inequalities. We are a part of this system and we should consider our roles and our positions while acting and interacting with each other in the realm of a global partnership. This is to say, respecting the space in relation to one’s position while engaging with one another is primordial. It is important to avoid the blend of other kinds of oppressions with the one being addressed. For instance, when one addresses privileges and shares everyday struggles and oppression, it is suggested to show empathy, to listen without wanting to give a counterargument. A defensive and protective reaction should never occur in these kinds of circumstances. It is important to understand that it is neither about making each other feel guilty, nor about establishing a discomfort as an end in itself. It is more about calling the whole system out and revealing a chronic situation of disadvantage, created and perpetuated directly or indirectly by those who detain the privileged. When a participant brings up the “white privilege” is never to dismiss white people and their trajectory, but to discuss the whole system that allows this. In the same context, these kinds of exchanges are not meant to be comfortable in any way. It is perfectly fine to be emotional about it and to not “calm down”. Taking a distance from the emotions of anger, frustration or fear that are linked to that oppression in order to soften the atmosphere actually maintains the status quo and sustains the current power structures. Not being “emotional” creates a comfortable ambience only for the privileged ones. To cut short, it is okay to acknowledge your privilege, it is okay to be called out, and it is okay to be emotional! Furthermore, we all have a lot of work to do and this has to be recognized. This work includes self reflection to understand and accept one’s role and think of ways to actively fight inequalities. The latter consists of listening carefully and respectfully even in case of disagreement, challenging one’s self and ideas which requires empathy. This self reflection should be accompanied by corresponding acts to deconstruct the preexisting conditions of inequality and injustice. There are many microaggressions which happen on a daily basis and which should be taken into consideration once one is aware of or has been called out about. Overcoming difficulties and inequalities in a global partnership doesn’t have a secret recipe. I believe that it starts with self reflection and follows with acts in one’s community, because change usually happens from within.
Overcoming language barriers

Language is one of the recurring issues in the volluting space. This is language both in terms of the fact that we are not all fluent in English but also that the academic language used is not one that everyone grasps. Not everyone will understand when we use terms such as postcoloniality, agency and other academic concepts. However, there is a tendency to focus on English, using simpler words, speaking slowly and so on, whilst neglecting that even if you speak slower, louder or in simpler English, if you are using concepts that many are not familiar with, there is still a possibility of a breakdown in communication.

One way to ensure the understanding of the contents and tasks is to create texts in different language versions, using standard language, simple language, and easy language. Simple language is a simplified form of standard language, and is particularly suitable for participants who are not working in their first language. The following basic points offer an orientation:

  • The texts concentrate on the essentials and are as short as possible.
  • The sentence structure is kept simple. Difficult word constructions, such as inserted subordinate clauses, are avoided. More than two commas in a sentence are an indicator that it is too complicated.
  • Passive constructions (“The tomatoes are grown.”) are avoided, and active sentences are used instead (“The tomatoes grow.”)
  • Technical and foreign words are generally avoided. Complicated terms that are essential for understanding the texts are explained, for example in information boxes at the end of the text. Processes and objects should always have only one name!
  • Easy language, on the other hand, is a defined language concept in some countries, and is aimed particularly at comprehensibility. It has its own set of rules and there are organizations specialized in the translation of texts. The texts must be tested by people with learning difficulties before they can be labeled as easy language texts with the following symbol:


When designing worksheets in simple language, it makes sense to follow the easy language rules. The most important points are:

  • a new paragraph for every new context and a font size of at least 14 pt.
  • clearly defined font (for example Arial, Verdana, Lucida Sans Unicode, or Tahoma) spacing of at least 6 pt. between paragraphs
  • left alignment
  • essential terms can be highlighted in bold print.

Where reading skills or speech comprehension is limited and/or abstraction is a problem using images can support the understanding and retention of information. Pictures should have a direct connection to the text, be easily recognizable, and not be used as a background, but as a central element of the worksheet. PowerPoint presentations and posters are also helpful for visualizing content. For example, a PowerPoint presentation that shows questions and answer options and illustrates each answer can supplement a quiz. Game rules, instructions, and evaluation questions can also be visualized with a PowerPoint presentation or written on a whiteboard.

Developing inclusive materials and teaching concept
In principle, the development of inclusive materials and teaching concepts differs little from the development of other learning materials, but it makes sense to focus on a few central issues. You, as a facilitator or/and leader, should ask yourself the following questions, to make sure your activities and materials are inclusive. My role and attitude:
  • Which ideas do I have about people with disabilities or whose background I am not familiar with?
  • Where do these ideas come from?
  • What points of reference do I personally have with inequality ineducation? Have I personally experienced limitations and/or disadvantages? If so, how have I dealt with them and what consequences do my experiences have for the way I engage with young people?
  • What do I need to keep in mind when interacting with individuals and the group as a whole?
My group:
  • Which skills, resources, and limitations do the individual young people have?
  • What could make it more difficult for them to participate equally in the activities?
  • How can I adapt the group atmosphere, the activities, and the working materials to their needs? Be aware, of course, that there are also obstacles, such as particularly challenging life situations, which the group leader can factor in but will hardly be able to influence.
  • What are the educational goals of the activity?
  • Are there practical references to young people’s everyday lives?
  • How can I make an activity as appealing and accessible as possible for everyone?
Additional tips:
  • Didactical reduction has the risk of simplifying content to such an extent that it is no longer correct. When it comes to cultural, religious or regional issues, simplification increases the possibility of reproducing stereotypes. If you are not an expert on the subject yourself, ask an expert to have a look at the materials.
  • Even groups of young people with similar challenges are heterogeneous!
Finally, you can glance at a few central points to learn how to identify truly inclusive teaching and learning, this way you can make sure your methodes are being effective.
  • The group leader expresses appreciation for each individual person.
  • Activities are oriented towards the individual needs of the participants and focus on strengths and weaknesses.
  • Various methods and media are used.
  • Methods are interactive.
  • Cooperative learning is encouraged, and participants are not separated according to different skills.
  • Working materials are designed in such a way that they are understandable and workable for everyone.
  • Different opinions and experiences are respected and have their place.

Iceberg theory

Young people often remark that they feel they are defined by one aspect and not considered  as a whole person. It is essential to consider the overlapping or intersecting social identities and other factors in a person’s life and the way that these can impact mental health and wellbeing. ‘Intersectionality’ suggests that various biological, social and cultural categories (such as  gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion and age), interact on multiple and often  simultaneous levels. The theory proposes that we should think of each element or trait of a  person as inseparably linked with all of the other elements, in order to fully understand identity. As an inclusive organization, INEX always trys to implement the Iceberg Theory in its activities. It the behaviour shown by a person is considered only the tip of the iceberg. These behaviours are suggested to only be 9% of what we see when we look at a person. These behaviours can be seen as anger and fear, for example, acting out as things we observe  as swearing, aggression etc. The Iceberg Theory invites us to question what is going on in a  person’s life to exhibit these feelings. In relation to the Iceberg Theory, beneath the tip of the iceberg exist values, skills, beliefs,  culture, identity and past life experiences. When these examples are challenged or changed it  can lead to a person’s needs being unmet. If practical and emotional needs are not met the Iceberg Theory welcomes you to identify how  you would behave if you were stripped of certain needs. This can help you as an individual to  better understand the reasons and logic behind the way a person that is causing problems for  you is behaving. This in turn develops empathy and possible solutions to work more effectively. Empathy develops when the individual, group or community has the strength to see beyond  the destructive expressions of anger to the hurt, needs and fears of those who they experience  as hurting them. EXAMPLES FOR USE IN YOUTH WORK PRACTICE
  • To support participants to develop empathy for others they can work with people who are problematic within group or individual environments.
  • To support participants to identify new and effective ways of working with hard-to reach people, people with special needs and people with mental health disorders.
  • To challenge the participants’ own perceptions, belief systems and prejudice towards young people from marginalized groups e.g. hard-to-reach, LGBT and special needs.
  • To support participants to understand why they behave the way they do and to analyze which needs are not being met.
  • To support participants to process what aspects of their life are out of balance and make positive changes to meet their basic needs in a less chaotic and problematic way.