Youth and Global Leadership

Sep 09. 2020.

By Marco Vitiello Head of Finance, YLN Junior Fellow, WAAS


Over the last two years we have witnessed the rise of youth and environmental movements: activated by brilliant leaders, these movements have been asking governments for more consistent policies to tackle global warming and the environmental problem. They have managed to consistently raise the consciousness of millions of people regarding the trouble humans have caused with their own hands: they’re fighting for their future and asking for a fairer world, one that is built up on social justice, democracy and gender equality. They have so far acted outside institutional settings, basing their activity on a horizontal distribution of power and showing the world the efficacy of shared leadership. But these movements risk to lose momentum like many other movements in the past. This paper examines the action strategies of youth movements from which civil society as a whole can draw ideas to improve its capacity to play a determinative role in shaping the future. It supports the paradigm of shared leadership, illustrating the necessity of boosting youth participation in the decision-making process and the untapped opportunities of a concrete, diffuse intergenerational cooperation, within and outside institutions.

  1. Introduction

A new decade has started: from now on, we have a ten years’ time span to successfully address the objectives of Agenda 2030. Excuses and procrastination must be avoided, as the failure of this agenda would mean condemning ourselves to a future based on regret, greed, war, poverty. The specter of devolution is at our gates, but we must find courage to look into its eyes and to be true to ourselves: just as we have created it, we have the power to destroy it. But we must act now.

The consequences of human activity stand before our eyes. The Australian bushfires are arguably only the most evident symptom of our incapacity to face the global threat caused by our own toxic relationship with the ecosystem: for too long, we have falsely believed to be separated from the environment we live in. Now, we are paying the cost of an illusion whose brightness is turning opaque. Our growth – for long measured only in economic terms – has turned out to be unsustainable. What happened in Australia and Brazil is only the most evident sign of an often silent tragedy that might lead the whole world to obscure days: cataclysms, economic crisis, deterioration of human health, wars for natural resources (i.e. water). The multiple dimensions of the SDGs are indissolubly interconnected: losing ground in any of them would mean losing ground in the general struggle. The environmental problem – whose effects would hit hard especially developing countries, which once again would have to pay the highest cost – affects all dimensions of the natural and human systems. The human species as a whole is at risk: extinction is not an improbable event.

In this moment of great uncertainty, all actors need to cooperate on the basis of the common interest represented by survival: cooperation is the only way out. If diversity potentially represents one of the most valuable resources humans have in their hands to tackle the problems they face, it is then our duty to make the most out of it. Multiple perspectives enrich the discussion and accelerate our capacity of finding the kind of creative, substantial solutions that are required not only to avert the threats to our lives today, but also to boost the evolutionary process towards the achievement of higher standards of living and happiness for all human kind. In order to unlock this evolutionary process, steps must be made so that all actors can be included in it.

In this context, one actor has played – and keeps playing – a central role: youth. Youth movements – activated by brilliant leaders – have recently led social and political action, advocating their interests in the community. They have raised consciousness regarding environment protection and have been educating others on matters of global concern. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated during his end of the year speech: «we enter 2020 with uncertainty and insecurity all around […] But there is also hope. This year, my New Year’s message is to the greatest source of that hope: the world’s young people. From climate action to gender equality to social justice and human rights, your generation is on the front lines and in the headlines».[1]

We need young leaders to collaborate with: the UN, states, NGOs, all actors should involve younger generations more, guiding them in multiple activities and learning from their perspectives. At the same time, proper space should be let for them to lead their own initiatives and investigate their own capacities and limits. By doing so, by activating a strong, substantial intergenerational collaboration based on mutual trust and understanding, we will manage to achieve the SDGs this decade.

  1. Youth Leadership

Youth act no matter the consideration and attention it is given by other societal actors. Young people, today just like in the past, are aware of their needs and are asking for dramatic change in all dimensions of the current system – from the political to the economic, societal and cultural. Compared with older generations, many of us do not believe in the illusion of separation: they feel human beings are an inseparable element of the environment. For this, they know deep within themselves that exploiting the planet without any regard for its ecosystem means driving fast in a suicidal run towards extinction. We will be the ones to pay the highest cost and we are conscious of that: for this reason, we are not willing to compromise with institutions when talking about the future.

Greta Thunberg – founder of Fridays for Future movement – represents the most well-publicised example of a young leader fighting for the future of younger generations. She has been able to mobilize an astonishing number of young people, starting up an intergenerational struggle intended at saving the planet and our future with it. By talking truly and by using the tools offered by modern technology (social media), Greta, together with the many other young activists who joined her movement, has managed to educate people from all generations about environment protection, raising their consciousness about issues such as climate change and unlocking social and political change. As a consequence of FFF’s struggle, many initiatives are being taken by states and institutions to tackle the problem of pollution and environment protection (i.e., Italy will soon introduce environmental education as a mandatory subject in elementary, middle and high schools). But they know much more needs to be done. The fight is not over and they will not give up until concrete actions will be taken at the global level.

Fridays for Future is only one among many examples. On 31st October 2018, a group of young activists organized a gathering on Parliament square in London to protest against environmental pollution. Little did they expect that 1.500 people would show up and join their protest. That day, they announced a declaration of rebellion against the UK government: The Extinction Rebellion movement was then born. From that moment on, they have grown in number all over the worldleading peaceful, civil protests with effective, creative actions (i.e. super-gluing themselves at the gates of Buckingham Palace as they read a letter to the Queen). [2] They have so far raised three general demands in most of the territories of their action:[3]

  • Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change
  • Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  • Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

The third point looks very interesting, as they are asking governments to give civil society more space to lead the decision-making process regarding the environmental subject. Their vision is simple and clear: creating a world that is fit for the next 7 generations to live in by creating a new culture based on healthy habits, resilience and adaptability; the current system is seen as toxic and corrupt, but still they will not blame any individual. By changing culture, they intend to replace the current system with a fairer and sustainable one.

Everyone is welcome to join them and their action is built up on a horizontal distribution of power: mitigation of power is one of the main principles they follow in order to achieve a more equitable participation. All their activities are based on a bottom-up process: autonomy and decentralization are key words of their organization.

These movements are providing a service for the whole of human society. Not only do they advocate substantial change that would be beneficial for all, they are also fighting against the popular narratives of far-right, populist political forces who are poisoning the minds of millions of people. And when fighting these forces, they happen to be more efficient than liberal parties. For example, in Italy the Sardines movement was born to channel the energies of young people against the political campaign of the Lega party in Emilia Romagna (northern Italy). They stood up against political narratives based on hatred and violence, thwarting Salvini’s intentions. As a result of their effort, the Lega was defeated at the regional elections. Leaders of this movement have so far refused any direct entanglement with any political party, rejecting the idea to enter politics. The movement has now reached incredible proportions – managing to gather 100,000 people and more – and is going national, raising awareness among the Italian public about the dangers of a political language that is spreading hate and violence all over the nation.

There is an important element we can note from these and other movements. People who lead them are not looking for personal benefit. They work on a volunteer basis, giving all they have and are to the cause they believe in. They have a vision they feel to be fundamental for the sake of the whole world and are not afraid to fight for it. They are asking not only for adequate measures to tackle the environmental issue, but also for gender equality, social justice and participation. They are aware of the meaning of the word “privilege” – perhaps more than past generations were – and are willing to seek a redistribution in their societies and in the international system.

These idealistic, young people are real, energized and ready to keep the struggle going. Their movements are free of vested interests. But can they become catalysts of a substantial, systemic change? The answer is: yes. But not without some kind of help.

  1. About youth participation

We can speak of genuine youth participation only when young people are given real power to influence institutions and decision-making processes. Whilst young people may have the capacity to gather to fight for their beliefs and are able to influence – to a certain degree – the decision-making process in society, they are often marginalized within institutional settings. We will need to play much more active roles within or together with institutions to make a difference. Treating young people as passive human subjects has no concrete benefit for anyone. Having a group of young people speak at a number of meetings cannot be considered as a measure of youth participation, rather youth and adults need to work side by side (Checkoway, 2008). Intergenerational partnership is beneficial for all: adults would benefit from fresh energies and innovative ideas and ways of thinking; young people would benefit from the experience adults have to share, learning how to properly channel their energies which otherwise would risk being wasted.

Youth participation is consistent with the view of “youth as resources”, in contrast with the opposite one – often described in the media and even in social sciences – of “youth as a problem” (Checkoway. 2008). Portraying youth as a problematic or vulnerable actor in need of protection has no positive effect on either young people or adults: when this happens, young people tend to accept and interiorize these images, struggling to view themselves as agents of change. On the hand, adults lose a potentially strong ally, one with full energies to invest in projects and initiatives under the umbrella of institutions, NGOs, firms etc. In many countries the two views coexist, but awareness of youth’s potential has been growing recently in all European countries (Bertozzi, 2015).

Rather than “caring” for youth, we should activate and empower young people. As Rosangela Lodigiani notes (2008), activation is one of the main tools we have for helping individuals find their path towards emancipation, and can be considered “synonymous with participation in the production of welfare and with the exercise of civil, political as well as social rights.” Empowerment helps individuals and groups increase their personal skills and puts them in a position from which they can bring about actual personal and social change, which therefore tends to stimulate active participation (Bertozzi, 2015). But shall we adopt youth participation as a goal or as a policy-inspiring principle? In the first case, young people are addressed with compensatory policies whose purpose is to seek participation as an end in itself; these policies usually tend to fail. In the case of participation as a policy-inspiring principle, we shift the attention on situated needs and on the heterogeneity of experiences. Dialogue becomes the main tool and active involvement becomes a reality that leads to the establishment of intergenerational partnerships (Scardigno and Manuti, 2011).

Regardless of their activation or empowerment and no matter how they are addressed by other societal actors, young people are agents of social and political change (Bertozzi, 2015). Even when not mobilized, young people act, mostly outside political and international institutions. Welcoming us to cooperate with organizations, allowing us play an active role, is the needed step towards a fruitful mutual exchange that would be beneficial for all actors involved and for society as a whole. The true value of youth engagement lies in the impact we have “on the overall quality of life of the whole community” (Carlson, 2008). Wanting youth at the table because we will be “future leaders” is not the point. The point is: youth are needed at table because we contribute with a unique perspective of today (Carlson, 2008). As Greta Thunberg and many other young leaders demonstrate on a daily basis, youth is capable of speaking truly and raising awareness on topics that would otherwise be ignored for too long. When provided with the necessary training and opportunities, the beneficial effects result in better planning, better decisions and, in the end, better governance (Carlson, 2008).

By empowering young people, in this case by welcoming them as key participants to the GL- 21 project and, in general, providing them with the opportunity to lead their projects and cooperate with important organizations such as the Un and the World Academy of Arts and Science, will turn them from mere “recipients” into active participants in policy and planning.

  1. Conclusions

There is a great lesson we can so far learn from youth movements about leadership: the importance of shared leadership.

Historically speaking, leadership has been for long conceived as something pertaining to an amazing individual, someone who takes the lead of a movement, an organization or an institution, and gives orders to his or her subordinates, setting the general strategies everyone will have to follow. This paradigm – which has brought social sciences to focus on the leader and its actions in the context of a group or an organization – now seems doubtful, in light of the example given by the new youth and environmental movements. These movements are in fact showing the potential of shared leadership, a topic which scholars have started to examine in recent decades. The authors of this paradigm argue that leadership is an activity that can be shared and distributed among members of a group or organization. As Pearce states (2003), “depending on the demands of the moment, individuals can rise to the occasion to exhibit leadership and then step back at other times to allow others to lead.”

Environment and youth movements are born from bottom-up processes. Even when inspired by amazing individuals (i.e. Greta Thunberg), these movements are activated and kept alive by many individuals who share leadership in a democratic way. Leadership within their horizontal structures appears in fact to be fairly distributed among all those individuals who have the courage, the mindset and the vision to take the lead towards the achievement of the cause. Leadership is then not determined by the authority or by the position one’s has, but rather by his or her capacity to influence his/her peers. In these movements leadership is distributed among many and everyone is welcome to join in and give his/her contribution to the cause. Leadership roles are not fixed. Power is distributed (as Extinction Rebellion itself states in one of its principles).[4]

What conclusions then? In the light of what we have examined, two main points emerge:


  • Shared leadership as a way to achieve better results
  • Intergenerational collaboration


The two points converge. If we want to make the best out of the decisions we take, make sure they are shared decisions and actions. Welcome more young people to participate in the decision-making process, merging fresh energies and ideas with experience and wisdom. By sharing leadership among young people and adults, we will achieve the highest level of success. In this period of great uncertainty, finding unity in diversity represents our only option towards the solution of today’s problems, and intergenerational alliance is a vital part of it.

  1. Bibliography
  • Checkoway Barry N. & Gutierrezz, Lorraine M., “Youth Participation and Community Change: an introduction”, Journal of Community Practice, 6, 2008.
  • Bertozzi Rita, “Youth policies and youth participation: from beneficiaries to actors”, Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 7, 2015
  • Rosangela Lodigiani, Welfare attivo. Apprendimento continuo e nuove politiche del lavoro in Europa, Trento, Erickson, 2008
  • Anna Fausta Scardigno & Amerlia Manuti, Giovani che partecipano. Una ricercasulle politiche giovanili della Regione Puglia. Roma, Aracne, 2011
  • Cindy Carlson, “The Hampton Experience as a New Model for Youth Civic Engagement”, Journal of Community Practice, 6, 2008
  • Craig L. Pierce & Jay Conger, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership, London, Sage Publications, 2003