October 2009
4-H Extension Corner

Learning Leadership through 4-H


Through 4-H, young people have many opportunities to develop leadership skills. One of the flagship events for teens is Citizenship Alabama Focus held annually in Montgomery.

What does it take to be a leader? That is an ongoing question of interest and discussion within 4-H, America’s premier youth organization for leadership development. Working through the nation’s Land Grant Universities, like Auburn and Alabama A & M, 4-H has arrived at some solid conclusions.

4-H has determined there are specific skills which young people need to have if they are to be successful leaders. These organizational abilities help them learn to take responsibility for their own actions and to work with others to achieve personal and group goals.

Through 4-H leadership projects and activities, youth gain "hands-on, minds-on" experience in key areas of leadership:

4-H State Council Member Anna Grace Masterson of Lawrence County believes “To be a good leader, one must display the character traits of honesty, friendliness and trustworthiness.”


• They gain a better understanding of themselves.

• They become more comfortable and more skilled in communicating.

• They learn to get along with others.

• They learn how to learn.

• They learn how to process information and make decisions.

• They learn to manage complex tasks and work as part of a group.

Joel Burks of Cullman, a member of our 4-H State Council, talks about leadership this way: "To me, being a good leader means doing it both in front of people and behind the scenes. Anybody can get up and look the part, but it takes a real leader to do it when nobody is watching."

Such leadership requires self-understanding. That is based on introspection and empathy, an ability to "put yourself in others’ shoes."


Teamwork and cooperation are values taught through 4-H. This group in St. Clair County has a good mentor for building robots and work together as a team.

Such empathy is one of the most difficult personal characteristics to build, but it is crucial to good leadership. We have all seen controlling managers who think leadership means power and even intimidation. 4-H seeks to teach "leaders" are not bullies. Interestingly, university research shows a correlation between empathy and bullying. Children who bully do not lack empathy, but instead they associate the pain of their victims as a positive feeling. Exercising a close, strict control over a 4-H club (or a corporation) would certainly not be an effective way to build crucial group effectiveness or any sense of organizational morale.

Communication is one of the hallmarks of 4-H leadership programs. Many Alabama leaders have commented on how 4-H public speaking programs gave them the self-confidence and the tools to effectively express themselves. Perhaps we should consider giving out "4-H Public Listening Awards" just as we give out "4-H Public Speaking Awards." Any notable Alabama 4-H alumnus like Chambers County’s Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, would have learned the majority of good communications is not standing on a stage pontificating, but sitting and quietly listening to people.

It is by listening that young people learn how to get along with others. Another Alabama 4-H State Council Member, Anna Grace Masterson of Town Creek in Lawrence County, said "To be a good leader, one must display the character traits of honesty, friendliness and trustworthiness."

Good leaders use those skills to involve others in decision making and to develop consensus within the group. In organizing a successful 4-H field trip, the president of the 4-H Club wouldn’t determine where the group was going, how they would get there and the role each club member would play. The good leader would work within the group to build consensus on important issues creating a fun learning experience for the whole group.

4-H State Council Member Aleem Ahmed of Auburn put it this way: "4-H has taught me leadership is teamwork. It’s about working with a group to accomplish a common goal and to resolve any issues and conflicts that arise."

Effective leaders model teamwork in how well they get along with one another and with the rest of the organization. They maintain teamwork in good times and bad times, and look to one another as allies working toward a greater good. The successful leader builds those relationships and partnerships not only within the organization but with outside groups and individuals who can help the organization advance.

Amy Payne Burgess is a 4-H Regional Extension Agent in Northeast Alabama. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..