Ten Ideas for Developing a Child’s Leadership Ability

by Andy Wood on May 4, 2010

in Esteem, Five LV Laws, Leadership, Life Currency, Principle of Legacy

Ask an adult to define leadership, and sometimes you’ll get a blank stare, or a wad of contradictions.  Ask a child to do it, and he or she will often have a much easier time.  The leader in a kid’s world is the one who can get his friends to do what he wants them to do.  Or leadership may begin with the words, “Hey, you know what would be funny?” 

One thing adults should know that kids often don’t, however, is that anybody can lead.  That skinny, awkwardly-shy girl in third grade may be a corporate CEO or trailblazing missionary in the making.  That boy who’s always picked last for the kickball team may own a sports team one day.

Everybody is a potential leader. Leadership is not synonymous with talent or personality types.  Leadership ability is not always obvious.  And it sure isn’t the same thing as authority.

Leadership is influence.  And influence – especially good influence – can be taught.  And here’s the really cool part:  You can teach a child to influence others without them knowing that’s what you’re doing.

So whether you have kids of your own (works for grandchildren, too), or you work with children in some capacity, here are ten ideas for fostering leadership in the kids in your world.

1.  Encourage his or her dreams.

The difference between leaders and followers starts with vision.  And vision isn’t the sole possession of big people.  Effective leaders set goals and pursue them with passion.  And they continue that pursuit in the face of disappointments or seeming impossibilities. 

Unless they are in serious danger, never say to a child, “You can’t do that!”  Instead, when they come up with their latest crazy-enough-to-be-possible idea, try asking, “How are you going to do it?”

2.  Celebrate steps toward goal completion.

Leaders want responsibility.  They are driven to get things done.  Followers don’t have the same desire for task completion or responsibility.  But sometimes what appears to be a lack of motivation is just a signal that the goal looks too big.

Help children reach big goals by celebrating small successes.  Set up milestones, and whoop it up when they reach them.  We do this instinctively when babies learn to walk.  But big babies need milestones, too.

3.  Let them practice “being in charge.”

This one always made my wife nervous.  But I have always been a big believer in letting kids make a decision that we all would live with.

The most fun experience we had in this regard was something we called the Restaurant Game.  Simple rules:  One kid picks a random number.  The other gets to be the navigator.  We get in the car and start driving.  When we get to a major intersection, I would call out, “Left, right, or straight?”  The navigator made the decision, and I followed their directions.  Meanwhile, we’re counting off restaurants we pass.  When we hit the number set by the random number picker, that was where we ate – regardless of where we landed.

The results were always interesting.  But the decision-making and temporary authority the kids had was an important step in letting them practice meaningful decision-making.

4.  Encourage them to be creative – even when it means “thinking outside your box.”

Leaders solve problems with originality and audacity.  While followers find their security in the familiar, leaders find their security in breaking new ground to solve problems.  Leaders ask “What if?” – and they aren’t afraid of “Why not?” as an answer.

Here’s the problem with creativity and the box when it comes to children.  Sometimes we make the mistake of encouraging kids to think outside everybody else’s box but our own.  But if we are going to teach them to approach problems with no sense of limitations, then we must – wherever appropriate – drop our own fences, too.

5.  Teach them people skills.

Leaders differ from followers in that they are relationship builders.  They don’t wait to initiate contact with others; they act.  Even introverted leaders move toward people, not away from them. 

When it comes to children, it is imperative that we teach them to be confident when they interact with people of all ages.  And graciousness, manners, and listening skills are caught before they’re taught.

Here’s a novel idea:  Talk – and listen – to children as if they’re people, not idiots or babies.  Teach them how to answer the phone.  Let them stay in the room for a while and visit when other adults are around.  And do not – PLEASE – let them talk with their thumbs (text) until they learn to speak with their mouths and hearts.

6.  Praise them for their strengths… catch them doing something RIGHT.

Leaders know who they are, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not.  They are aware of their strengths, and work from their sense of strengths.  Rather than wasting their time trying to improve a weakness or be someone they aren’t, leaders surround themselves with people who possess the skills or experience they lack.

Children often live in a brutal, cruel world that focuses on their weaknesses or failures.  And that’s just the playground!  Why not be the exception?

Not every act of praise or encouragement will result in life direction; my now-adult children still run away from what to me are obvious strengths.  But they do so with confidence in themselves and faith in the God who created and gifted them.

7.  Within appropriate safety and age concerns, allow them to experience the results of their decisions.

Leaders make decisions – lots of them.  When a decision goes well, they praise the team.  When it goes poorly, they accept responsibility for the decision and move on.

Want to create a sure-fire follower or failure as a leader?  Bail your kid out of every hare-brained decision.  Show them by experience that all roads lead to Baskin Robbins.  Or worse, promise good consequences for good choices and fail to deliver on them.

8.  Teach them (and ask God to teach them) to stand alone.

Leaders differ from followers in their willingness to deal with interpersonal stress.  They are willing to pursue their direction, even in the face of criticism, conflict, or apathy.

In other words, sooner or later, every true leader stands alone.

For children, this is one of the hardest lessons of all.  The risks at this age seem larger than life.  Encourage courage for the right things.  Show examples from history, current events, the Bible (see Hebrews 11), or your life of courageous people who moved forward, despite the attacks from the crowd.

9.  Ask them lots of quality questions… and let them ask questions of you.

Leaders are resourceful.  They know how to fit different pieces of the puzzle together, or take advantage of the resources of others around them.  How do they learn to do this?  By asking questions themselves, or looking for answers to the questions of others.

My son, at age 4, once asked, “Daddy, how can I be really smart?”  My knee-jerk answer:  “You have to learn to love to read. And, you have to be willing to ask lots of questions.”

Boy, did that open a can of worms.  Um, I mean a whole new world.

I still do this with my now-adult kids.  I ask lots of open-ended questions and either accept their answers without criticism or play devil’s advocate to get them to think.

10.  Teach and model for them the value of servant leadership.

Immature people of any age define leadership in terms of authority.  That’s what Jesus called “Gentile leadership” – lording it over people.  (Amazing that you can actually find that in churches today in the name of God.  But I digress…)

The greatest of leaders serve their constituents.  They go first.  They provide resources and support for their team.

And where do they learn this?  From examples… starting with you.

Not every leader-in-the-making reveals his or her potential early.  But the lessons and experiences you offer them can go a long, long way in defining how they navigate through adulthood.  And the difference you make in the life of the kids in your world may be your greatest act of LifeVesting ever.

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