Former Gov. Buddy Roemer told a room full of students Sunday about his conversation with an Alaskan elder over why a lead sled dog would want to be at the front of the pack — where the whip cracks and the load is heavier.

“He said, ‘The scenery only changes for the lead dog,’” Roemer said, referencing the famous quote. “ ‘The others just follow.’ So young people, the scenery will only change for you.”

The charismatic politician spoke as the keynote speaker on the closing day of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership conference held in the Capital City over the weekend.

High schools from around the state sent one promising sophomore to attend the conference, where the focus was teaching teenagers not what to think, but how to think, said Cindy Bishop, the conference director.

“And that’s to think independently,” Bishop said. “All of these students have immense leadership potential, which we hope to enrich here.”

HOBY was founded in 1958 by the Western movie star after he was inspired by a trip to Africa to visit Nobel Peace Prize recipient and humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

After hearing Schweitzer talk about the need for young people in America to help make a difference in the world — and then asked directly by Schweitzer what he was going to do about it — O’Brian started the leadership program.

Fifty years later, all 50 states and several other countries host a HOBY conference to help teenagers develop an ability to stand apart from the crowd.

The 117 participants spent the weekend volunteering, participating in panel discussions with local leaders, listening to motivational speakers and learning about different careers.

“I learned you can’t be shy and stand in the back to get somewhere in life,” said participant Andy Kea from Brookhaven High School, Brookhaven, Miss.

Much of Roemer’s speech addressed the future of America and how the students in the room could have a direct impact on it.

“One day, somewhere, somebody or some community will turn to you and say, ‘What now?’” Roemer said. “And you’ll step up. I place a high value on your courage to make America what it ought to be.”

After his speech, Roemer said he’s still “just getting started” in his mission to shape the future of the nation.

“I’m doing it,” he said of a presidential campaign for the 2012 election. “I’m not known, but I’m concerned about America. And people are hungry for something different.”

Roemer said he’s received campaign donations — sticking to his $100 maximum contribution — from people in 46 states.

Roemer flew to Baton Rouge this weekend from New Hampshire — where he was working on his campaign — to speak at the HOBY conference, calling the program “the best.”

“It’s incredible,” he said. “The focus is not on specific talent, but on building leaders. And we need leaders.”

Many of the students said the most important thing gained from the intense weekend was the bonds they made with other participants.

“You have friends out there that you think are good friends, but they’ll only bring you down,” said participant Samantha Arcement Chalmette High School, St. Bernard Parish.

“The people here will only bring you up. These are friends I’ll know forever,” she said.