Liam Kim of Bonney Lake is a leader in training: The 4-year-old has been directing others since he learned to talk. By the time Liam was 2, his mom, Shannon, noticed how easily and comfortably he took the lead around kids of all ages, from his older cousins to strangers at the zoo. “When we’re at the park, he usually ends up with a swarm of older kids following him,” she says.
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, coming out this month. 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 leadership 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, says Laura Adriance, director of Seattle’s Global Youth Leadership Initiative (GYLI). That means that 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.
The word “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, says Adriance.
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.
Many other leadership traits can be taught — withdrawn children can learn to become more confident; shy children can learn to speak in front of others. But those who lack the core moral traits won’t be effective lifelong leaders.
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. Embracing the responsibility for one’s own choices is the first step toward becoming a leader, says Cottrell. In life, the difference between being a driver and being a passenger is huge, he notes: The driver makes all the decisions, while the passenger is just along for the ride. “As a driver, you recognize that you can steer, set the speed and be as safe or as risky as you want to be.”
As children enter adolescence, leadership can expand to encompass world issues. “Students are interested in understanding global issues — they’re interested in what’s happening to people around the globe and they want to help,” says Adriance. The GYLI gives them the tools to do just that, supporting leadership development in high schools across the Puget Sound region, including Eastlake High School, Newport High School and Bainbridge High School.
The year-long program (part of Seattle’s World Affairs Council) takes young leaders through the process of identifying a problem, writing an action plan and organizing action around global issues. Recent student projects have included funding access to clean water in Africa and raising awareness around global women’s issues.
One important aspect of the program is that it encourages kids to enact their action plans at their schools, by starting clubs, giving talks, and working with teachers and administrators to spark change. “We’re not just teaching kids about global issues,” notes Adriance, “we’re helping them build community at their schools.”
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.
Scores of local organizations are jumping onto the online bandwagon. The Girl Scouts of Western Washington, the Seattle Youth Commission, the GYLI and The Jewish Day School of Seattle all have Facebook pages to share news, publicize events and motivate action around their causes.
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.
Choice and reflection
Whether leadership takes place online, in schools or through community groups, the opportunities are meaningless without self-reflection, says Light. “Students need to have those critical conversations and opportunity for feedback and self-reflection to tease out the qualities that allow for optimal results.”
The importance of self-reflection is one reason the GYLI program takes place over a full year. It’s not enough to simply teach kids about leadership, do a few exercises and send them on their way; the most significant learning and growth takes place after the three-day GYLI workshop, when participants return to their communities and begin to bring their action plans to life, notes Adriance. Over the course of a year, they’ll have natural setbacks and obstacles, and they’ll return to the drawing board to recalibrate plans and check in with mentors for ideas and support. “That’s when the action plans become reality,” she says.
Time will tell whether little Liam Kim ends up in a corner office, leading a classroom or organizing grassroots social change. “Will he still be as confident when he’s in school, without Mommy behind him? We don’t know,” admits Shannon. For now, he’s learning to become a leader in the simplest of ways: by helping to choose what the family eats for dinner tonight.
Malia Jacobson is a Tacoma-based freelance writer and mom of two.
Raising leaders of character
From tots to teens, effective leadership begins at home. Parents can encourage leadership growth with simple, at-home tactics.
- Focus on each child’s strengths. Every child has leadership potential — how they realize that potential will be unique. One child might gravitate toward service projects, while another prefers team sports. Recognizing each child’s unique strengths gives the child a platform for future leadership development.
- Pay attention to kids’ companions. Kids will begin to resemble the five or six people they spend the most time with, making their choice of pals an important aspect in character development. Get to know kids’ friends. If a friend is a poor influence, initiate an open conversation about why that friend is appealing to your child.
- Seek kids’ input whenever possible. Leadership skill building can begin with the smallest children and the simplest of choices, from deciding which shoes to buy to picking the site for a playdate with friends. Older kids can help plan meals, family game nights and even family vacations.
- Create a sense of a bigger purpose. Connect kids to the larger world outside their front door through participation in local events, a globally oriented service project or a faith community. Creating a sense of a larger purpose gives kids a sense of their place in the bigger picture, provides valuable perspective and exposes them to leadership role models.
Source: David Cottrell, author of Monday Morning Leadership and Monday Morning Leadership for Kids (November 2012)