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How to develop your leadership skills at university

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Uni is a great time to get stuck into activities that’ll make you a better leader. We’ll walk you through what they are and how to get into them.

You’d be surprised at how many leadership roles you can take before setting foot in a graduate job. There are even different levels of leadership experience depending on your current comfort zone. No matter your choice, each will put you in good stead for the professional world. We’ll go through a couple popular choices to think over, why they’re good leadership opportunities and how to get into them. 

Campus team sports

No matter what sport takes your fancy, playing in teams is a great way to develop leadership skills. One of the most essential qualities of a leader is the ability to work with others and understand their concerns. As a ‘team player’, you’ll have to regularly interact with and understand your fellow teammates, thus strengthening your ability to do so through continued practice. Even simple activities like hearing someone out are invaluable when it comes to furthered cooperation and by extension leadership. 

Direct leadership opportunities are available in these contexts too, even if you aren’t captain of the team. Taking part in strategy, or just patting your teammates on the back for solid continued performance as the game goes on are excellent qualities. Plenty of leaders underestimate the value of praising their companions and subordinates. Acknowledging the effort of your peers is a fantastic, simple morale booster. Playing in a team will help you develop knowledge of how and when it’s appropriate. 

Another easily-overlooked advantage is the chance to learn leadership under pressure. As games wear on, your whole team will surely become exhausted near the end. This is when people are at the end of their patience, including you! If you can learn to centre yourself, acknowledge your exhaustion and still persistently encourage and praise your teammates, you’ll be working on one of the most important leadership skills: remaining calm under pressure. 

Joining in is just a matter of shooting the organisers an email. Even if you don’t see yourself as sporty, there isn’t any room on the team, or you haven’t had experience with any team sports previously (rare in Australia!), there’s still plenty for you to do. Local clubs or just recreational sport with friends accomodate for all manner of skill levels. You’ll be able to learn the basics of the sport and start building those leadership skills right away. If this still isn’t your cup of tea however, fear not! There’s plenty more you can do. 

Student-run clubs and societies

These aren’t just a chance to meet people. Many student-led clubs, particularly those dedicated to specific disciplines, are an excellent chance to develop your leadership skills… provided you look for them! Student clubs tend to operate on the back of volunteers. Their hierarchies can vary between universities and disciplines, but normally tend to feature a committee of some kind who decide upon events they’ll be running, which can consist of social events, pubcrawls, swanky balls, competitions, networking nights, special lectures and more. The only real limit is creativity. 

So where do you fit into this? Well, pretty much every club wants more members. Some will be free, while others will impose some kind of small membership fee (think like $5 a month, or even year). Small price to pay honestly. After that, it’s just a matter of putting your feelers out and staying up to date with what they’re doing and jumping in when you get the chance. If they’re running a stall, put your hand up. If they want someone to help set up a lecture theatre, why not? Just find something you can do to learn what they’re about. When that annual general meeting comes around, they’ll think of you as someone reliable to take up the mantle of a leadership position. No matter what it is, there’s bound to be a chance to practice those leadership skills. If you’re managing social media, it’s a chance to exercise effective and polite communication. If you’re coordinating events with someone else, it’s a chance to collaborate with other club members and find solutions everyone’s happy with that also achieve your goals. 

The gist of it is saying yes to opportunities. Yes, it could feel a bit daunting at first, but most people are generally pretty friendly, especially students running clubs. They’ll even be able to show you what they’ve learned, or at least you’ll be able to learn from them. Particularly if they’re more experienced students in their final years. Feel free to bring a friend along if you aren’t sure and you can develop those leadership skills together. 

It’s also advantageous to be strategic about your choice of club if you’re really serious about becoming a better leader. For instance, if there’s a toastmaster society at your university, perfect! You can learn one of the most important skills a leader can know: speaking in public. The debating society could help you handle confrontation in a calm, rational manner. Maybe there’s a bespoke leadership society? Who knows? The first step is seeing what’s available at your university and really considering how it could be of benefit to your development as a leader. 

Ask a professor if they need assistance with research

You might not think this would be conducive of leadership experience, but while at university, it’s honestly a great way to both learn your craft and develop better communication. This carries so many other benefits too. You get a chance to see what work in your field is like, learn what your professor(s) think of it, where the career opportunities are and if there are leadership opportunities. At the least, it’s a chance to connect with the faculty, which likely have all kinds of contacts for students that show initiative. Even if they say no, they may be able to refer you to someone else, or to a particular program. 

Setting this up doesn’t have to be daunting. You don’t need to sacrifice eight lambs and pledge your firstborn child. Just send them a quick email expressing your interest. Better yet, you can even do research beforehand so you can make an informed case for why you’re interested. What the work entails, why you think it’s important and why you’d consider it a privilege to work under them as a researcher. Your call; whatever you feel is appropriate for what you’re asking. 

If you don’t know what your professors are up to academically, nor have any way to find out, just approach them after a lecture and ask if they know about any minor research opportunities in their field. If not, there’s a more practical thing you can try.

Leverage your internships

You should be well aware by now of how important internships are to building your resume, but they’re also invaluable for building leadership skills. All the people you meet throughout them are potential mentors and source of advice, who’d be happy to help if you shot them an email occasionally. What we mean by ‘leverage’ is just this: you want those internships to provide as much value as possible, not just some line of text on a resume. One of the best ways to maximise their value is by asking people if it’d be OK to ask them a question via email occasionally. It works wonders.

At the internship itself, you can learn by observation. See how your mentor or handler interacts with other people. How their boss interacts with others. This is your chance to really drink in a lot of information about good leadership, provided you’ve got the perceptiveness to notice! Stay open, ask a lot of questions and try to make a lot of meaningful connections. You’ll be taking some vital steps to becoming a better leader while building that resume, all in one fell swoop.

After watching other leaders in action, you probably want a chance to apply those skills now. We don’t blame you! Learning by doing is one of the most powerful ways to commit anything to memory. Fortunately, universities have built-in opportunities to do just that.

Volunteer at PASS sessions

If you do well enough in any units, particular those foundational first-year units, you’ll often get the chance to take part in peer assisted study sessions (PASS), but not as a student. These are sometimes paid opportunities to teach students who are roughly a semester behind you concepts they might be struggling with. The sessions are long and you’ll be asked a lot of questions. You’ll be looked to for calm explanations and empathy. These are both excellent leadership qualities. Furthermore, the fact you could be doing it for an hour or more if you desire means you’ll also test yourself under pressure. It’s kind of like high altitude leadership training! Teaching after all is, in essence, a type of leadership. 

To get into one of these positions if you weren’t approached directly, contact course coordinators for units you feel went well. Ask if you can help out in a PASS session (or similar activity). The worst that can happen is they say no after all, so we strongly recommend just giving it a go. You don’t need a PhD or master’s degree. If you got something like a distinction in one of your foundation courses (think intro to X; fundamentals of Y), you might be in the door. 

Volunteer… in general!

One of the most rewarding things you can do is help out at a charity, NGO, or even on-campus activity, club related or not. That confidence with people, communication and clarity all leaders require can be developed through helping out. You may be shocked at the number of local causes that could use your assistance, whether it’s a homeless shelter or planting trees in a reserve. All of it can be helpful to others, the environment and yourself. At the very least, it’ll help build your confidence and ability to empathise with others. Good leaders need sound empathy to connect with their peers and subordinates. If you can sharpen that up, you’ll be on your way to exceptional leadership. 

Get a part time job

If you haven’t got one already. Basic customer service skills, punctuality and organisation are all essential qualities of a leader you’ll have to develop in just about any job. It doesn’t even need to relate to your degree. Having a job is an excellent exercise in discipline as well as leadership. Employers always love to see students who are coming out of uni with a strong work ethic, as they’re getting skills they can work with right out of the gate. As a bonus, you’re getting paid!

Preparing a resume and hunting for jobs has often been written about, including by us on many of our sister sites, like GradNewZealand, GradAustralia, PostgradAustralia and of course right here on The Uni Guide. It’s a big topic, so have a browse when you get the chance. We like to write about that big graduate job at the end of the tunnel, but for that part-time gig at Macca’s you won’t need to go too far. Even just giving them a ring or walking into a store you know is hiring (or even if you don’t know they’re hiring) and asking if they’ve got any openings is a perfectly acceptable strategy. They may even respect your boldness! 

You should now be better acquainted with some of the opportunities available to aspiring leaders at uni. You’ll definitely pick up even more tricks along the way. These will get you started nicely. The important thing to remember is how many different skills leaders require, which can mean many things you do can apply to getting better. Clear communication, assertiveness, empathy, organisational skills and more can come from so many different places, the only real limit is your creativity. We’ve led the way. Now it’s your turn.