Cultiva Youth Project teens planting seeds at the urban farm.

We tend to think of leadership as an inherent trait. Some are “born leaders,” the thinking goes, while the rest of us are content to follow. But the fact is that good leadership involves much more than traits like charisma and charm. Listening and communication, collaboration and delegation—these are skills that can be taught.

And teach them we must. U.S. employers have identified a leadership gap, according to Psychology Today, which cites a Partnership for 21st Century Skills survey that found roughly a third of all new graduates were deficient in leadership skills.

That’s bad news not only for the business world, but also for our democratic institutions. A representative democracy, after all, can only function if the elected leaders truly represent their constituents. Washington’s stagnation has been blamed on our political polarity—but America has always been polarized. In the past, however, we had leaders who accomplished change in spite of that polarity.

So how do we teach leadership to the next generation? One pioneering program takes an interesting approach. The Cultiva Youth Project, based on Boulder, Colorado, cultivates leadership by putting youngsters in charge of planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and selling produce from an urban farm.

Cultiva Youth Project teens washing lettuce.

Cultiva Youth Project students learning how to check beehives.

The project is a program of Boulder’s Growing Gardens, a nonprofit organization formed in 1998 to manage the city’s community gardens. From these beginnings, Growing Gardens has developed a broad set of programs that include the education of children and adults around food and farming.

The Cultiva project is aimed at youth aged 12 to 19, and teaching leadership skills is built into the program’s mission. Kids come into the project as “apprentices,” graduate to “participant” status, and can then move on to become “youth leaders.” They are paid a stipend at first and can earn an hourly wage after they’ve proven themselves. Working together, the youth in the project produce some 60 community supported agriculture (CSA) shares for Boulder community members. They also provide gleanings from the field to area families in need. “To see them out in the field and solving problems, it really is exciting,” says program coordinator Rachel Cadwallader-Staub.

Cultiva Youth Project participants washing carrots.

In addition to learning practical skills on the farm, teens in the Cultiva program are coached in leadership skills. For instance, CSA members don’t simply pick up their box of veggies and scoot; instead, the weekly pick-up becomes an opportunity for the youth to interact with the adults—describing what’s in the box and explaining how to cook it. Likewise, Cultiva participants give demonstrations and tours to younger children who come to the farm for learning.

Young children hold worms in their hand and show them to the camera.

Taken together, the aspects of Cultiva create a strong and meaningful opportunity to learn not only about farming, but also about how to lead others—a skill that will be immensely valuable no matter their future profession.