Children Who Grow Up to be Leaders

With leadership as one of the recognized key 21st Century skills, it sometimes seems like every parent is looking for the secret ‘pill’ that will ensure their child grows up with leadership traits and qualities. So, I was fascinated to come across this Harvard Education Newsletter article that drew on research and views from many of the leading experts in this area in top American universities and some very interesting data emerging from longitudinal studies. These have sought to look at children right through from very young age to adulthood to discern and identify traits and characteristics/ patterns in the younger children and their lives that can be taken as markers and predictors for who has the best potential to become a leader:

Harvard Education Newsletter Article – Key Factors in Leadership Development

The article is very interesting from a number of perspectives. Particular elements that I took away included;

  1. It doesn’t matter how committed a parent or educator you are – you can’t make leadership development happen. In fact, the more you seek to ‘drive the agenda’ for the child, the greater the risk that you are undermining their ability to acquire and develop leadership traits,
  2. There is no substitute for really tuning in to the child, listening to them with full sincerity and attention (and guess what – this can’t be left to a maid or done in 5 minutes over dinner!)
  3. ‘Stick-at-it-ness’ is a vital marker for leadership development. Whilst we should be listening to what children have to say themselves, we need to find ways to develop and encourage their willingness to stick at something, to pursue it to a level of mastery. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too quick to respond favourably to those who show the propensity to be ‘butterflies’ fluttering from one activity to another (swearing every time that the ‘new thing’ is their ultimate passion,
  4. (no surprises) IQ is a relatively poor measure for which children will grow up to have leadership qualities. That there is any correlation (I’m not saying causation) at all is, I suspect, related to growing up in a sensorily rich environment, with the flexibility and opportunities to try things, to engage with activities of interest and be ‘active.
  5. I see no indications that excessive engagement in ‘passive leisure’ activities are going to add anything positive to leadership development (however much the desire to engage in excessive TV and computer time might be present!)
  6. ‘No failure’ environments are unlikely to serve children well. They need to be able to handle failure and picking themselves up (not having us pick them up),
  7. We do a great disservice to some children when we tell them they’re ‘smart’. Instead, we should be focusing on opportunities to recognize those who persevere, even when they don’t get to the finish line (focus on process over outcomes)
  8. If we are to have schools that place focus on inner motivation, we have to break the stranglehold of extraneous testing, comparison and routines driven by school convenience rather than children’s needs.
  9. The views of Alfie Kohn in his book and articles ‘Punished by Rewards’ are strongly endorsed – those children fed a regular diet of extraneous motivation are at risk of growing up with less leadership traits. What we as parents and educators need to focus on is helping children to tap in to their intrinsic motivation and to create the environments and reflection opportunities for them to do so.

The book by Carol Dweck of Stanford university, I have on order and am looking forward to reading.


3 Responses

  1. Now, that is why I subscribed to your blog. You discover gem piece of article and then on top of it, you provide your own takeaways.

    Good show, Mr. Mark.

  2. Leadership is an innate trait. But , Mr. Parkinson , I still have to read that Original Article but , the Summary itself was effective. I have to read it out once again to assimilate the observations.

    • I’m not sure I can buy in to the idea of leadership skills being innate. Apart from anything else, in my own personal experience and that of close friends and colleagues I’ve seen the skills honed through practice, coaching and experience too often to believe that.

      I believe that leaders are made, not born – and particularly that they can emerge from any strata of society or background with the right motivation, mentorship and learning.

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