The Teen Test for Your Leadership Skills

by  Jon Mertz  |  Leadership Development

Just how good of a leader are you? A quick test may be how well you are “leading” with your teenage son or daughter.

Leading as a parent is one of the most challenging, purpose-filled jobs we have. Maybe it is just me, but parenting changes when your child is in the middle of those teen years. When they were younger, we could just tell them what to do, and they acted without too much fuss. When they were younger, they looked up to us almost with admiration.

Well, something happens to our child around the age of 16, and we change, too. We shift from an autocratic leadership model to a coaching one.

Here’s what I mean. Leading teens becomes about four key things:

  1. Setting boundaries
  2. Upholding accountability
  3. Guiding, not telling
  4. Inspiring

Let’s explore each.

Setting boundaries

Micro-managing is out. It is about setting the expectations and giving them room to explore, learn, stumble, and succeed. Boundaries aren’t overly restrictive, but there are certain standards and principles that must be maintained. Communicating these clearly is essential.

In essence, this is not telling them what to do or how to act. It is telling them that they have the freedom to do things within certain guidelines. Imagine these as the bumper pads in a pinball machine; it helps keep the ball in play without going completely out-of-bounds.

Upholding accountability

Going hand-in-hand with the boundaries is accountability. If the expectations are not met, then there is a consequence. Something is lost. There is a price to pay for ignoring standards and doing things that betray defined principles. This is about integrity and trust. When broken, there is a consequence, as well as a time of healing and learning.

As leaders, we need to not shy away from holding them accountable. Accountability is the linchpin that makes boundaries and standards work.

Guiding, not telling

With boundaries and accountability set, we can coach and mentor. We drop hints and suggestions. We listen. We guide. We offer thoughts and insights when asked. We don’t get in their way by telling and directing. The boundaries and accountability consequences provide the bar to live up to. As tempting as it might be to tell, we need to hold it back. Learning and growing is about trial-and-error. The extent of the trials and errors may be held – hopefully– in-check by the defined expectations and consequences.


We cannot underestimate the power of inspiration. It isn’t always lofty stuff. It is the why, what, and how we do certain things. Are we setting a purpose-led example? A spiritual and gratitude aspect needs to be present in our actions and conversations.

In addition to these things, we need to expose them to inspirational thoughts, programs, speakers, and events. We never know what spark will light a fire within, so we need to expose them to different opportunities to be inspired.

Above all, set a good example.

All that we do – with our spouse, our neighbors, and our work – is being watched for inconsistencies or opportunities to question. We need to lead with full integrity in all we do and say. They are watching closely. We need to set a sound example.

We can hope the Mark Twain effect happens:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

The Teen Test of Our Leadership

Leading teens tests our leadership skills. How we do leaves a legacy, so we need to do our best. Each of these lessons needs to be applied in our work, too. If we cannot pass these four leadership principles in our work, then we may be failing in more than one place.

This is more than a test. It is a challenge to lead with boundaries and expectations defined, accountability maintained, guidance rather than detailed instruction, and inspiration wrapped around it all.

What principles would you add that you have learned from raising or working with teens? Please add your insights below.


What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By jon-mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. At Thin Difference, Jon writes and facilitates a conversation on how to empower, challenge, and guide the next generation of leaders.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Joy Guthrie  |  05 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Teens respect honesty. Honesty/truthfulness is key to that relationship (as with leadership). If your teen feels that you’ve been dishonest with them (as with the converse), it takes a long time to rebuild that credibility again.

Jon Mertz  |  05 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Absolutely agree, Joy! A great addition to the “leadership test.” Trust needs to be at the core in the relationship, a two-way trust street.

Thanks for adding this point!

Angela Bisignano  |  05 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Great post Jon. You have some insightful points. Making the transition from parenting children to parenting teens can be challenging, yet rewarding at the same time. I have teenage boys, so I can certainly relate. One thing that comes to mind as they become increasingly more independent is the degree of responsibility that goes along with their freedom. I always tell my boys that they will have as much freedom as they are responsible with. Great topic Jon!

Jon Mertz  |  05 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Thanks, Angela. I agree…. it is very challenging and rewarding. Matching freedom with responsibility is the best formula, too. Really appreciate your insights and comments. Jon

Emma Kingscott  |  08 Dec 2012  |  Reply

Great Article Jon. I would add – Communication – Providing an environment that encourages communication, discussion, debate etc. without judgement. Stopping yourself from answering and allowing the topic to be discussed so they can reach their best choice (it may not be yours!). Encourage their understanding of others and how to consider others as they would like to be considered. Show them the reasons why someone may have acted in a way they cannot accept or understand. They don’t need to agree and the points you raise are all guesses, yet it gives them a different perspective from which to view a person or situation that they had perhaps made a black and white decision on. Finally, enjoy their growth as young adults and remember that they still need you.

Jon Mertz  |  09 Dec 2012  |  Reply

A great add, Emma. What this reminds me of is the engaging dinner conversations. It is bringing up different topics and having a thoughtful discussion on them. Doing this sets up an environment for respect, listening, engaging, laughing, and evaluating each other’s positions.

Communication is about respect and about understanding different perspective. What you highlight is well said! Thanks! Jon

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