Philosophy of Student Leadership

Philosophy of Leadership Education

For a student leadership program to be most effective, the program must allow for these three elements:
  1. Students must be allowed to practice leadership.
  2. Students must be given the technical, personal, and relational support to succeed in their leadership.
  3. Students must be guided towards sustainable self-directed ethical practices.

Core beliefs:
  • Leadership is a teachable and practicable skill related to, but separate from the skills learned to be a good individual band student.
  • All students can learn to be leaders.
  • Leadership is life-enriching and has great value beyond band.
I will expand on each of these three elements in the following paragraphs.

1. Practicing Leadership

An analogy I like to use with other teachers is teaching leadership via lecture is like trying to teach someone to swim via lecture. The only way to truly learn leadership is to jump in the water and do it. But what is “jumping in the water?”

An opportunity to practice leadership requires two things:
  1. Meaningful Projects
  2. Student Autonomy

Meaningful Projects:

The projects that you give to students must have value beyond exercise. This is the same philosophy as teaching music through performance. Projects with no urgency or value (ex: planning a band bonding event that won’t happen) is like having band rehearsal with no concert.

Opportunities to practice leadership in meaningful ways is as essential to leadership as having concerts is to musicianship.

Quick tip
: while this is a topic for another post, I will mention here that there are two types of meaningful projects of which students can take ownership: projects that are more managerial and projects that are more relational. Managerial projects may have historical methods to achieve success and students show autonomy through optimization (equipment manager, head chef). Relational projects require more finesse and may require more people skills (running sectionals). To be sure, all projects have a mixture of both elements, and some projects may even have an equal blend of both (planning the first ever end-of-season Marching Band Concert).

Be intentional with which students take on which projects. While a certain amount of “stretch” is certainly necessary for growth, I would encourage you to start junior leaders on managerial projects and create teams for relational and blended projects.

Student Autonomy:

Students have to be given the flexibility to take ownership of how something is accomplished even if they aren’t choosing the what of the project. If the opportunity to lead is loading the equipment trailer, the student leader must have the flexibility to structure that process the way she sees fit. If the opportunity to lead is a student morale officer, the student leader must have the freedom to plan events of his own choosing.

I want to make the point right here that giving a student autonomy over a project does not equate to assigning them a project and walking away. Unless that is an incredibly senior leader, that is a recipe for undesired results. You must have regular check-ins and support built in to help the student find their path to success (as outlined in section 2); however, the autonomous nature of this work means students may still fail occasionally.

If you see failure on the horizon your job as a director is to weigh the learning opportunity the failure presents for the leadership team with the health and safety of the whole band. As my friend and colleague Patric Buchroeder puts it: an effective student leadership program provides opportunities for students to “fail gracefully.” By having those check-ins with your student leaders you are providing the safety net to allow for the teacher to make preparations that allow the student to fail gracefully. The important part is that the student is granted the agency for that option to exist.

Meaningful projects over which students have ownership are the “concerts” of student leadership. It is through these projects that you get to teach all of the other elements that employers and colleges and life wants (self governance, communication, conflict resolution, etc). Outside of these projects, learning these skills via lecture is like only practicing scales. I encourage you to do the scale work, but eventually get on to the music.

2. Student Supports

Just as you wouldn’t hand out recorders to your fourth graders before going over recorder rules, you don’t give out leadership projects without going over your non-negotiables. And just how you wouldn’t just abandon those 4th graders after they learn how to hold the instrument to focus on other things, your student leadership team needs the same attention throughout their projects. And just as you reflect with your students after concerts, you must reflect with your student leaders on their projects - especially when projects fail. As such, student leadership supports come in three parts: before, during, and after.

Before - Planning:

Before a student runs off to go work on their project, you must lay out the ground rules. For me, the ground rules are:

  1. Stay within school rules.
  2. Stay safe. (with people and equipment)
  3. You must have regular check-ins with me throughout the project. (And appraise me of any major developments that occur between check-ins.)
  4. We will reflect at the end. (I have thought about asking leaders to write a reflection paper.)
After the ground rules there are several skills I believe all students should be able to execute with some level of proficiency before any project begins. Before beginning a project, a student leader should be able to...
  • write and evaluate SMART goals for effectiveness.
  • identify when to escalate or de-escalate a problem.
  • communicate effectively up, down, and across.
  • exercise autonomous decision making to solve basic problems with no/little guidance.

After we have gone over the ground rules and students have had training on the basic prerequisite skills, we can move on to individual projects. Students either can brainstorm improvements they would like to make in the band (intune with the larger mission of the organization) or the director can suggest certain needs to be filled.

Note: be aware of focus. All projects must support the larger mission of the band. It may be awesome to have one project “to help the Humane Society find homes for cats,” but unless your band’s mission includes “community service” as a tenet, that project may not be appropriate for marching band. It is your job as a director to ensure that all projects that make the final cut are projects that support the goals of the group as a whole.

When the student has a committed project, we work right here at the start to envision what “success” will look like. If the student’s project is planning a band bonfire, we ask - what is the measure of success? Is it just that the event happens? That at least 30% of the band is in attendance? That there is food? That over half the students who attend respond on a survey that they had a good time? Odds are that there will be multiple criteria and levels that constitute what success will look like. Agree upon the specific metrics for what success will mean up front.

After you have a shared vision of success, you need to identify a timeline with key actions items that need to happen for the event to take place. Continuing with the bonfire example, the first hurdle that will need to be hopped (after administrative approval) would be to find a date and location willing to host the event along with a backup date for a rain-delay. Next, may be getting wood and safety precautions in place. Then, figuring out if there will be entertainment at the fire.

After you have the key action items that need to happen for the event to be a success as you previously identified, every single one of those action items needs an owner and a due date. If two people are taking one action item, one of them needs to be “in charge.”

Finally, after you have your plan in place, set a regularly recurring meeting schedule. This can change as the project gets closer, but an expectation of regular check-ins is your safety net to protect the rest of the band. It is healthy to fail, but our job is to make sure that there is some level of protection to allow students to “fail gracefully.”

Note: I created this Backwards Planning Guide to use with my own students. You may also find it helpful when working with your own students to force the previous conversations.

During - Problem Solving:

After the plan is set, each subsequent meeting is really just three questions:
  1. How are we doing on your key action items?
  2. Are we on track to hit success as we defined it?
  3. What do you need from me to make this happen?
Listen to what they say and keep your ears open. It is okay to “change” the plan to adapt to new circumstances. When the students get into the trenches of the project, they may learn that only so many people can fit in their venue so their target of 30% of the band in attendance is not realistic. This is the time to adapt the shared vision of success to reflect new realities. Just remember that when you make changes to the shared vision to reflect those changes in writing wherever you are keeping your documents.

Additionally, this time is when you start to learn about specific skills needed for the project. They need to e-mail the fire marshal to let them know that a large fire will be taking place, so they need to learn how to write and send a professional email.

Here is a list of some personal, relational, and technical skills that could be taught or mentored through the regular check-in.

  • Personal
    • Establishing your personal values
    • Emotional self-awareness and management
    • Personal goal setting
  • Relational
    • Conflict Resolution
    • Motivating others
    • Group Dynamics
    • Effective Communication
  • Technical
    • Email etiquette
    • Scheduling Meetings
    • The meeting process (scribe, facilitator, agenda)
    • Running a sectional
    • Backwards planning

Note: Yes, you will need to reteach some of the skills you taught in the planning phase. This is okay is just a part of good teaching. The groundwork you laid when you first approached the material will help as you guide students through it as it applies to the specific case you are working on in the student’s project.

This is also when you will use your director hat to protect the student leader and the rest of the band in the event the student leader needs to fail gracefully. You must actively monitor the active projects for safety concerns or failures that would be entirely detrimental to the ensemble as a whole. You don’t need to “save” the student leaders (failure is healthy), you just have to make sure that if there is a failure, that the rest of the group is (mostly) protected.

After - Reflection:

While you will be reflecting the entire time you are in the thick of the project, the reflection after a project is completed is arguably the most important part in the process. Even failures are “wins” if properly reflected upon and learned from.

Good reflection, like good teaching, guides the students to discover their own answers. Use the Socratic Method to prod in letting students identify what went well, what didn’t go well, and what possibilities exist to do things even better. Then, identify a prioritized list of actionable steps that can be taken to address what was brought up and systems of accountability to ensure those steps happen.

Some good starter reflection questions to use:
  • How do you feel the event went?
  • Did we achieve our shared vision of success (VoS)?
  • What did we learn from this project?
  • If we were to do this again, how might we do it better?
  • What learning from this project can we apply to other projects that are happening right now?
With each starter question, be sure to go four more steps:
  1. Why do you think this? (general “why”)
  2. What, in particular, do you think made it like that? (targeted “why”)
  3. What specifically could we do to ensure that does/doesn't happen in the future? (strategy)
  4. How can we make sure that that will happen? (accountability)
Obviously, with any conversation there will be some ebb and flow. Your job is to guide the stream of the conversation so that the student thinks through all four points ending with a commitment to accountability.

3. Ethical Guidance

“With great power comes great responsibility.” ~Ben Parker’s dying words to Peter Parker

By empowering students with the tools above, we are unlocking the world. A student who leaves your leadership program will have the tools in her belt to make any idea a reality. We have a professional obligation to ensure that we offer some guidance on how to act ethically towards themself and towards their community.

The choices we make can be broken into three categories: arbitrary, right vs. wrong, and right vs. right.
  • Arbitrary decisions (picking out an outfit, choosing what to eat)
  • Right vs. Wrong (Do I walk out of the store without paying, or pay?)
  • Right vs. Right (the most difficult decisions)
Diving into the specifics on these three choices and how it relates to educating student leaders is a topic of another blog post.

Students must be educated to execute sound judgement on the distinction between “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.” Where the letter of the law is the what the rule physically states, the spirit of the law is the why behind it. If the letter of the law says “no running in the halls” the spirit of the law may be “we want to prevent injuries and accidents that happen more frequently when people run in the halls.”

What =/= Why

Where the letter of the law is fixed, the spirit of the law is fluid. The rule “no running in the halls” could have the spirit of safety as mentioned above, or the rule’s spirit could be about reducing noise for students completing work in the classroom, or the spirit could be for both of those purposes. As an ethical leader, it is important to train students to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law as they can lead to very different behaviors.

Finally, teachers must model the ethical behaviors they want to see in their students. I heard a statistic saying 30% of waste is excreted through the skin, but when it comes to absorbing information, that number seems to be reversed to 70%. If we want our students to behave ethically, we must also behave ethically.



It is our belief that effective student leadership programs consist of three elements:
  1. Students must be allowed to practice leadership.
  2. Students must be given the technical, personal, and relational support to succeed in their leadership.
  3. Students must be guided towards sustainable self-directed ethical practices.
It is our hope that you will find this site a helpful resource to you and your program in running an effective leadership program and producing competent, capable, and ethical student leaders.

If there is anything we can do to help, please do not hesitate to reach out.




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