Many years ago, I used to help out in my daughter’s kindergarten class. I remember one female student who always seemed to be in charge. When the class would break up into groups, this little one would embrace her teacher persona, immediately directing those around her. On the playground, she was always surrounded by her peers who were invariably hanging on her every word.
Some children seem to effortlessly fall into the role of leader, no matter what the environment. However, there are those children who are late bloomers. These are the ones who blend in early on, but blossom with maturity and become presidents of their high school class or captains of a varsity team.
What does this tell us about the development of leadership qualities in our youth? Why do some young people take charge of school projects and playground activities with ease, while others are happy to take the proverbial back seat? Are leaders born or nurtured?
NURTURE OR NATURE?
“Talent for leadership is a combination of nurture and nature. Leadership requires the building of a strong central core,” says Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and educator.
Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, LLC (letsgrowleaders.com), adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, and prominent keynote speaker, explains, “Important leadership skills can be nurtured in all children. Of course, some personalities will be more drawn to leadership roles, but the truth is that every one of us will face situations in our lives where strong leadership skills are necessary to accomplish something we believe in.”
If nurture is a substantial influence, how can parents encourage their children to embrace those qualities that successful leaders possess?
“Parents can be as deliberate in developing leadership as they are in exposing children to reading music and excelling in sports,” Hurt reports. She helped her son in this capacity. “My son was shy as a small child. I don’t think anyone would have said at that point that he was a ‘natural born leader.’ We worked on developing leadership skills every single day, but we didn’t talk about it as such. Today, he has significant leadership roles in college and in the community. I’m inclined to think he leads well because he led early and often, and he was exposed to a wide range of experiences.”
The following key leadership qualities can be nurtured in children from a very young age.
Confidence and self-esteem are inherently linked.
“Bonding is everything, and parents who build security and self-esteem through positive interaction with their child – from birth throughout childhood – have it right,” Gross contends. “A well-bonded child has less stress, processes information better, sticks to problem-solving longer, and ultimately, has good self-esteem.”
Capable leaders are confident with their vision and decisions, while simultaneously listening to others’ opinions without feeling threatened. Gross continues, “A child who is secure in his own shoes can listen to his own inner voice, as well as the opinions of others, without the need to dominate.”
Gross also advises parents to allow their children to be take part in decision-making. “You are building that secure central core which is so important for good self-esteem.”
Children need to learn to fend for themselves and to fight their own battles. Therefore, parents shouldn’t constantly rescue their kids when a mistake has been made, such as delivering a forgotten textbook to school or explaining to a child’s teacher why a project wasn’t completed on time. You are helping your child to learn to be a self-starter when you teach him to take responsibility for his actions.
Gross asserts, “Teaching your child how to tactfully and clearly explain his position and feelings to others, allows him to be self-advocating. Through your own authentic, social interactions, you are teaching your child to respect the opinions of others, to evaluate them, and to follow her own voice.”
Gross also points out that by teaching a strong sense of values and integrity, you are strengthening your child’s ability to be assertive.
Does your child run for the hills when you ask him to take out the garbage or walk the dog? Does she protest when asked to finish homework before dinner? What motivates young people to complete tasks, even when it’s the last thing they want to do?
“Intrinsic motivation is one of the key qualities of leadership,” Hurt explains. “Human beings of all ages are more motivated to invest time and energy when they feel they are an important part of something bigger than themselves.”
Therefore, it’s important for children to understand “why” they are asked to do something. If a child knows that a good grade in social studies will help secure a spot on the debate team that he hopes to join, he will be inclined to study harder.
Hurt warns parents about rewarding expected behaviors. “External incentives, such as candy to finish homework, can actually decrease intrinsic motivation, and children will be less likely to develop an interest in pursuing these tasks without being reminded.”
Goal-setting can sometimes be overwhelming and frustrating, especially if the goals are too far-reaching. Parents should help children set goals that are attainable.
“An important part of goal-setting is making them realistic and incremental,” Hurt points out. “Setting them too high at first can be demotivating, and a child may feel like the goal is impossible to achieve. Helping children break big goals down into smaller milestones can really help.”
For instance, if she is determined to break the school record in the back stroke, setting goals to improve her time by one second per meet is a realistic benchmark and will keep her motivated as she strives for her ultimate goal.
In order to be decisive, a person needs to feel secure with his own decision-making and problem-solving abilities. Parents should allow their kids to make small decisions from an early age, such as what to have for a snack after school.
“Helping your child make age-appropriate decisions will guide him towards the principles of responsibility and commitment,” Gross clarifies.
“One of the most important parts of learning to be decisive is understanding that choosing between two good alternatives is not right or wrong. Deciding whether to take ballet classes or play soccer is not a life or death decision, and it is reversible,” Hurt describes.
Hurt recommends that parents teach children to write down the pros and cons of choices. “This is a good way to help them develop critical thinking skills,” she adds.
Some children are comfortable presenting reports to their class, while others break out in a cold sweat. Public speaking is sometimes the most difficult communication skill to teach, because some children are petrified to speak in front of a group.
Gross describes practicing communication in everyday life as a key component in teaching good communication skills. “Sharing stories, taking turns with the dinner blessing, and making toasts in celebration are all easy ways to help your child gain confidence and competence in speaking in front of others.”
Gross also suggests encouraging children to put on little performances for the family, such as reading poetry, singing, or sharing an experience. “Such performances give your child the opportunity to practice and rehearse public speaking in front of a loving audience,” she says.
Children need to learn to take risks and to fearlessly follow dreams, even when peers don’t get it.
“The ‘No risk, no reward’ mantra is practiced by leaders who have mastered good core values, strong inner vision, and self-control,” Gross claims.
It’s imperative to teach your children that it is okay to fail because you always learn something from the process. Therefore, parents should share past mistakes and what they learned from them.
Hurt explains that modeling is critical when teaching children about risk-taking. “If you freak out when you make a mistake, your kids will pick up on that. When adults say ‘I can’t do that,’ children hear ‘Don’t try unless you know you will be successful.’ Instead, encouraging experimentation is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children.”
Humble leaders understand their own shortcomings as well as others’ strengths. They also accept that they can’t do everything themselves and know when to seek help from others.
“Life is about relationships, and this requires being able to get along with all people from all walks of life. Good leaders value their team and listen to the ideas of others,” Gross points out.
Hurt suggests exposing children to lots of people in different environments and circumstances. She advises parents to talk to their children about what they learned from the people they met. “Humility and empathy are two of the most vital leadership skills to learn.”
Even if a child is not destined to be a governor or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, leadership qualities help young people reach goals and become successful adults, no matter what their future holds.
Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist, and feature writer. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications across the U.S., as well as internationally.
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