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How to Build Leadership Skills

By Rafis Abazov

Updated January 21, 2019 Updated January 21, 2019

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, once said to a youth audience, “As the young leaders of tomorrow, you have the passion and energy and … a global vision.” Students probably hear a lot about leadership during their years at college; however, leadership skills remain one of those soft skills which one just cannot get from textbooks. These skills need to be developed, and practiced.  Here’s how to build you leadership skills alongside your studies.

Everyone can be a leader, with practice

One of the programs I lead is the Model UN–New Silk Way initiative. This is a student-led club which arranges trainings, disseminates knowledge about the UN system and organizes a series of bi-monthly mini-Model UN conferences as well as a large annual International Model UN at several partner universities in Kazakhstan, and recently in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.  It is time- and energy-consuming work that requires a lot of organizational and leadership skills to network with hundreds of students and faculty members.

Every year I recruit new students to join the club and every year I have to overcome their hesitation, if not fear. They often tell me, “We do not have leadership skills and knowledge...” And every year I have to convince them that every person has leadership skills, which s/he has to develop by practicing with great energy time and again. It is very much like the late Steve Jobs of Apple, who had to overcome his fear of speaking in public when he was a student.

Well, every year when we have our mini-Model UN conferences and trainings, some of my students lose their voice on stage, misspeak, become red-faced like a traffic light on the podium, get a lot of laughs from the audience, and may even fall down the stairs or just plain run away to avoid speaking. However, with every new step, they practice leadership skills, hone their ability to speak and to convince, and a few months later at the large International Model UN they speak and act in front of a large crowd – 300 students in year 2015 – very much like naturally born leaders.

Strong leadership starts from teamwork

So often students try to do things all by themselves or as a group of individuals – and this might indeed be faster at the beginning, on a small scale. However, teamwork – including team brainstorming and discussions, jointly building problem trees and using other techniques – ultimately helps to build a team of like-minded people who have a stake in the project. Granted, these meetings can consume a great deal of time and energy. True leaders try to build their teams with great passion indeed. But my students find it’s worth it.

For example, when we started our 2015 project, many students tried to choose activities where they could work by themselves. But when we ran some team-building exercises and learned how to apply corporate-level teamwork practices, these same students were amazed at how much we could get done and how much faster if we worked together. No way that a group of individuals or even strong leaders could handle more than 1,000 applications and over 300 participants – this is a job for a good strong team!

Therefore, it is crucial for leaders (or leaders-in-training) to identify team-building exercises that will work specifically for their environment and for their purposes. And it takes time to convert a group of individual students into a strong team.

Even motivation can be cultivated

The secret of successful leadership lies in an ability to motivate – first yourself and then the people around you. This might sound like a paradox; wouldn’t a true leader naturally be a motivated person? But in reality, a leader is a human being. S/he needs to find ways to become motivated. One tip: if you can develop strong arguments for self-motivation and a grand vision of the future or of the impact of your project/program, these same arguments will probably work with friends, classmates and colleagues.

However, motivation is not a one-size-fits-all deal. It is important to figure out what will motivate a young person and what will motivate a faculty member – as they may have very different mindsets for many reasons, including generational differences. The motivations which work for one group might not work for another group at all. So as you proceed, you may need to think about what kind of motivation works for younger audiences, or for senior managers, or for people from different cultural backgrounds.

True leaders keep moving forward

Creative students always find ways to work on developing and practicing their leadership skills and learning to reinvent themselves. In our case, the Model UN–New Silk Way program at Al Farabi KazNU helps students grow in many areas. One of these areas is teamwork, including teambuilding and an innovative approach to project management. Second, involvement in the program teaches students to be responsible members of their communities as they identify priorities for themselves, and for classmates and colleagues. Third, they gain experience in working with people at different levels and from different backgrounds – all ways to keep developing and diversifying their leadership skills.

This article was originally published in May 2015 . It was last updated in January 2019

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Written by

Dr Rafis Abazov is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he also manages a joint program with Earth Institute of Columbia University (New York, USA). He has written 10 books, including The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and has regularly contributed op-eds to The New York Times. Mr Abazov enjoys collecting rare books on British exploration of Central Asia and reading travelogues on Central Asia and the Middle East by Eugene Schuyler, Vladimir Bartold and Lord George Curzon. He has also authored photo exhibitions about his trips to Central Asian republics, Turkey and Afghanistan. 

Contact info: Office 1400 Rectorat, 71 Al Farabi Ave., Al Farabi KazNU, Almaty, 050040, Kazakhstan

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