How to Harness a Young Leader


Young leaders are a little like wild stallions: they have lots of energy but often are going in many directions. How can we "harness" them?

During September, I got a direct tweet from a friend/follower on Twitter. The sender was questioning why I used the word, “harness” as I spoke of developing young people. He felt like it implied “control” instead of releasing young people to pursue their own aspirations. It was respectful and legitimate. My message back, however, needs to take the form of a blog post…it’s just too long for a tweet.

First, let me say—I recognize the word “harness” can feel a bit controlling. If you know me, you understand I’m an opponent of trying to “control” students. In fact, I believe “connection” not control should be our aim. Control is a myth and a terrible goal. If we genuinely connect with young people, however, we’re able to guide them and as a result, the sense of being under control is a by-product. The mentor and young mentee align and make progress.

However, I still believe the word “harness” is a good word to describe what we must do for young adults.  Here’s why.

Think: Wild Stallion

Think of a wild stallion for a moment. Young adults today have grown up in a culture where they receive data on-line 24/7, can tweet their every thought or emotion and have options coming from all directions. It’s no wonder the word “overwhelmed” is the top word college student use to describe their life.

They are a little like a wild stallion. Lots of energy, but often going in many directions. They often receive no wise counsel from others. I realize this will sound a bit controversial, but twenty-somethings and teens may need exactly what an untamed horse might need:

1.  To be broken.

By this I don’t mean harmed. I mean broken of their self-absorbed ways, broken of their immature attitudes that fail to see the big picture. I needed to be broken on my first job—and I bet you did too. Life’s not about me. Like wild horses, this is a good thing. They’re exposed to a bigger picture mission.

2.  To be harnessed.

A harness is used with a horse to be able to guide them. As an analogy, I do not mean we are the “rider” or the master, but we do need a way to provide direction. We are “guides” not “gods.” This enables them to align their energy and move in a direction, like a river not a flood. They desperately need this.

3.  To be led.

Leading a horse means gently tugging a bit to the right or left, as they need help…but they do the walking or running. For a young leader, this means we show them the ropes and enable them to flourish with the insight or wisdom we’ve collected over the years, then let them run toward a goal.

It sounds so wonderful to say—we don’t want to harness kids today, but I’ve been working with students since 1979. Ugh. Helping them harness their energy is not the same as hindering them. In fact, to fail to help them harness their energy into something positive is abuse. Karaoke Parents, who want to talk like their child, look like their child, dress like their child so they can remain a “pal” more than a parent, usually don’t lead them well. They may “connect” with their teen, but they likely fail to provide the leadership their child needs to flourish as an adult. Think about it. Once a wild horse is broken and harnessed, their energy is aligned and purposeful.

I understand the wild horse analogy breaks down if you take it to an extreme. But I wanted you to understand what I mean when I say “harness.”

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