``I'd like to suggest we use parliamentary procedure.'' Some background groans and sighs. ``I like informal,'' someone else volunteers. ``Yeah,'' says another, ``we're not dealing with animals.''
That, more or less, was how it went as 102 high school seniors (two from each state and the District of Columbia) tried to arrive at ground rules and get on with piecing together policy papers on such unadolescent topics as ``technology and values,'' ``government and human services,'' and ``international security.''
The occasion for this exercise in group decisionmaking was the recent Century III Leaders conference here in the Colonial capital where Patrick Henry delivered his ringing rebukes to English tyranny. Since the '76 Bicentennial it has been a yearly gathering sponsored by the Shell Oil Foundation and run by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Through speakers, seminars, and a simulated town meeting, the program's organizers hope to encourage that often-elusive quality called ``leadership.''
Understanding the importance of leadership ``shouldn't be a matter of chance,'' says Frank Pace, founder of the International Executive Service Corps and one of the speakers at the conference. The notion that ``leaders are born, not made, is hogwash,'' he adds.
The fostering of leadership is a goal shared by a number of youth activities, among them Boys and Girls State, Presidential Classroom, the Senate Youth Program, and the YMCA's Youth in Government program. All try to expose young people to the processes of government. Today, such efforts have a certain topicality, with Secretary of Education William Bennett and others hammering at the need to instill civic virtues.
What's the payoff from a program like the Century III Leaders? ``I'm not sure this does any good at all,'' concedes John F. Bookout, chief operating officer of Shell Oil, whose company, through its foundation, commits over $1 million a year to the program. ``But who knows what produces a good leader?'' he adds. ``You can't quantify something like this . . . it only takes a small spark in just a few people.''
And what do the youthful participants say? ``The most important thing is that it brought us together with other people who are also leaders,'' observes Nancy Guyott, a student from Grand Rapids, Mich. Like many of her peers, she was exhilarated to be around so many people her own age who are willing to ponder weighty subjects. ``I stayed up till 3 one morning discussing civil rights and economics,'' she says.
Ted Smith, from Springfield, Mo., says his ``most valuable lesson'' from the conference was ``that there's a time to lead and a time to sit back and let others lead.'' Smith was singled out at the end of the three-day event as the outstanding young leader in the group -- an honor that includes a $10,000 scholarship.
At the heart of the Century III program is a day of free-wheeling seminars, during which the participants hammer out positions on six unwieldy national and global issues. That task puts one's ability to lead -- and follow -- to the test. Many of these teen-agers have become accustomed to chairing the committees they serve on. They've arrived here through a competitive process -- involving community service, interviews, and essay writing -- and it's not easy to subordinate that competitive impulse.
Once such preliminaries as parliamentary procedure are laid to rest, the 17-member seminar groups plunge into their topics. Eventually, they'll break into sub-groups which will take opposing stances on the issue at hand -- stances that will be defended during the town meeting. On ``Government and Human Services,'' for instance, the break came between those who felt that government has to take the lead in providing such services, and those who believe local voluntarism has to play a much bigger role.
As the roughly six-hour seminars wind down, some semblance of order emerges from the near chaos of debate and brainstorming. Final touches go on the 400-word papers. (``Maybe you need to flesh some of these things out,'' one participant suggests. ``Sounds more like a summary than a proposal,'' observes another. ``We're going to get killed on this. This is so naive!'' whines a third, looking ahead to the defense of their position at the next day's town meeting.)
The Century III program brings together young people who have demonstrated an interest in civic matters. But many of the people active in this program make it clear they'd like to see some kind of leadership preparation made available to more young Americans.
``All young people have great talent and ability if somebody will believe in them,'' says Carolyn Warner, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction and a member of the panel that selects the Century III winners. ``If I had my way, every student in the country would be required to take a public speaking course. That's the best way to teach you to order your mind.''