Young Leaders 2020 navigate the year of uncertainty

School seniors discuss leadership during a pandemic

Remember entering your final year of high school? Finally a senior, there’s the excitement of the last year on the school grounds, with adulthood on the horizon, the stress of the HSC, and the anticipation of the school formal and mischief of schoolies. Take that whirlpool of emotions and add a dollop of pressure being a school leader, sprinkle in social media, a sprig of mental health and a few drops of pandemic lockdowns for good measure; what a year to remember.

Nine school leaders of 2020 returned to the Fine Photography studio a year after they first sat for their portrait for the Young Leaders 2020 exhibition - when they had just been informed of their leadership roles at the end of 2019, not yet knowing what 2020 would bring. Not only looking older, they’ve experienced a year like no other, forcing them to grow up a little quicker than seniors before them.

While preparing for their follow up professional photography session, the students from various Sydney schools shared their experiences, their insights on leadership and the world around them.

Besides missing many milestone eighteenth birthday parties, and senior specific events, these young leaders struggled to stay motivated with online learning and longed for the social interaction school provides.

However, they were acutely aware of the importance of staying connected and looking out for one another. Adjusting quickly with the changing rules, adapting their leadership styles to accommodate the new landscape; little acts of kindness, passion projects and video messages took priority to lead their school through the unknown.

Though there’s a darker side to all that connection, as Eloise Aiken, School Captain of Cheltenham Girls' High School shares.

“It's cliche, especially with social media, you kind of develop tunnel vision at least during lockdown, because you're on your phone a lot. There are so many reasons why mental health is such a big issue for young people. But spending so much time on your phone, it makes me feel icky,” said Eloise.

Alice Morgan, School Captain, Ryde Secondary College raises the concern for her generation’s ability to communicate and interact with people.

“We’re over connected via social media and limited in face-to-face interaction, which is exacerbated by lockdown. We don’t want kids to be socially stunted by not being able to engage with their peers at school, so we encouraged getting back to school as much as possible,” said Alice.

Having led their schools through a challenging year, they shared views on the biggest challenges facing leaders today. Climate change and Indigenous rights are the standouts, and personal challenges while in the political spotlight such as ego, maintaining positivity and the ability to execute initiatives.

Josie Connelly, Head Girl of Our Lady of Mercy College adds the biggest challenge for leaders is overlooking what young kids have to say.

“‘They’re children, they don’t really know what’s happening’, but everyone my age knows what’s going on, we have Twitter, watch the news and read the papers.”

“A lot of my generation are on the same page about climate change, gender pay gap and gay rights. I don’t know how politics aren't listening, there are so many protests, plus Instagram and Facebook accounts that tell them what we want and it’s got a huge following. We’ve been conditioned to be open minded, because there are so many new concepts that adults haven’t heard of,” said Josie.

Asked what characteristics every leader should have, active listening was a favourite, with confidence and certainty in yourself, courage and positivity discussed.

Empathy was also a key characteristic, as pointed out by several Young Leaders, including Annabelle Richens, Head Prefect at Pymble Ladies' College.

“You can get so caught up in the tit for tat politics. At the end of the day, it comes back to 'do you believe that your fellow human beings should have equal access to the things that you have?' It's such a basic fundamental question,” said Annabelle.

They’re more prepared for the real world with the amount of hours clocked for Zoom and Teams meetings, got an early lesson in self motivated study which is timely for university plans, and some appreciated the flexibility and change in routine.

2020 gave Lucas Parker, Head Boy of Barker College a fresh viewpoint that hopefully lasts a lifetime.

“The whole year has widened my perspective on life. It probably would've happened without COVID-19, but there's a lot more than just school or just Year 12, so looking as far forward as you can and seeing what you can do with your life and making opportunities count,” said Lucas.

See how much they’ve changed in 12 months by viewing their initial portraits and thoughts here: Young Leaders 2020

Now they’re off to explore adulthood and make their stamp on the world for the better.

For more youthful wisdom, the insights of the fresh faced Young Leaders of 2021 can be viewed here.

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