What proud parent hasn’t envisioned their child as a leader? Whether parents picture their precocious tot in the Oval Office or a team captain’s uniform, their ultimate wish is the same: success.
Our culture often equates leading others with achievement and material success, says David Cottrell, best-selling author of “Monday Morning Leadership” and “Monday Morning Leadership for Kids.” Leaders are shining stars for others to emulate, respect, admire and trust.
But raising a leader is not a straightforward task. Even the definition of “leadership” is disputed by today’s experts, as they pump out books, webinars and workshops on the topic.
One thing they do agree on: Today’s leaders have complex global challenges to solve. Modern leaders can’t simply direct others, and charm, confidence and charisma — all enviable traits — are not enough for effective leadership. In fact, these traits may not be as important for the leaders of tomorrow as we think.
Checking the leader ego
The world “leader” conjures up the image of an all-powerful individual dictating from a rarefied ivory tower — or at least, it used to. Traditional leadership was viewed as a solo pursuit: Leaders were islands, surrounded by a sea of followers. Today, that definition has shifted, says Rabbi Stuart Light of The Jewish Day School of Seattle, where students are encouraged to become “upstanders”—leaders who take positive action to help others. “In the past, leaders were people with the first word, the last word and at least every other word in between,” Light says. “By contrast, the leader of today is the one who inspires others to reach their greatest heights.”
In short, it’s not enough to be charming or attractive. In fact, today’s leaders don’t need to be gifted public speakers who love the camera. Electronic media and social networking platforms give shy and self-effacing leaders a voice, effectively leveling the leadership playing field and opening doors for kids who may not fit the traditional “leader” mold.
In “The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time,” the late best-selling author Stephen R. Covey paints leadership as a combination of individual traits, including self-motivation, confidence, planning and interpersonal skills — think of communication, conflict management and honesty. True leadership exists only at the intersection of independence and interdependence; leaders need to first motivate themselves and then motivate others.
What does all this mean for our future leaders in classrooms and playrooms across America? Parents who want to build leadership skills should first focus on character, says Light. Paradoxically, parents who praise kids for taking the lead in social situations might be missing the boat, because true leadership is not about taking charge. Instead, effective leadership has, literally, humble beginnings: “The leader of today needs to exercise humility and understand that ‘It’s not all about me,’” he says.
Ethical behavior, honesty and humility are at the core of effective leadership, agrees Mariam G. MacGregor, author of “Teambuilding with Teens: Activities for Leadership, Decision Making, and Group Success” and founder of Youthleadership.com.
The teen years are filled with leadership opportunities, from serving as a class officer to organizing a church food drive. But younger kids can lead, too, and overlooking younger leaders is a missed opportunity, says MacGregor. “By making kids wait until high school to take on leadership opportunities, we aren’t nurturing the pipeline for young leaders,” she notes.
Although many schools are doing a good job at character education, “We need to emphasize those qualities from an earlier age,” she says.
Experts zero in on kindergarten as a time when kids are ripe for early leadership training. By 5 and 6 years old, students understand actions and consequences, and they’ve internalized some ideas about right and wrong. More importantly, they’ve developed a sense of empathy that allows them to see how their behavior impacts others.
A great way to begin leadership education is by emphasizing that children have ownership over their own actions. Longtime educator Evelyn Addis, co-author of “Monday Morning Leadership for Kids,” drives this point home by creating an oversized “driver’s license” for each of her kindergarten students, complete with the child’s name, photo and signature. When kids make poor choices, their “driver’s license” is temporarily suspended and they lose some classroom freedoms.
The message is clear: Each child is in the driver’s seat, with the ability to make impactful choices and embrace responsibility for those decisions.
Social networking has been a boon to young leaders, helping kids and teens communicate, connect, organize and motivate. Electronic leadership bridges access barriers such as transportation, which can stymie young people who are trying to organize groups and clubs. Not everyone has a car, but everyone can be a leader by leveraging their strengths online, says MacGregor.
But the growth of online leadership platforms introduces a new wrinkle into leadership training: Children now need strong online communication skills in addition to other core leadership traits, says Cottrell. Electronic communication is highly nuanced, and without social and visual cues such as vocal tone and body language, it’s easy to misfire. In other words, parents and educators should proceed with caution — and supervision — before turning young leaders loose on the Internet.
Whether leadership takes place online, in schools or through community groups, parents should give children time and space to discuss and share their experiences. Leadership opportunities are meaningless without self-reflection, says Light. “Students need to have those critical conversations and opportunities for feedback and self-reflection to tease out the qualities that allowed for optimal results. That’s when real growth happens.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer.