I met a special girl the other day. Her name is Violet and she is 6.
Violet’s age and diminutive size wouldn’t mark her a leader, but her future undoubtedly includes some leadership—and she will excel at it.
She wasn’t telling people where to go or how to do things. She wasn’t pushy or loud, either.
Violet simply sat there with her mom and pointed out all the things she liked about the people around her. “I like your bag!” she told the older lady next to her. To me—“I love your blue hair!”
Everyone Violet spoke to – which was anyone near her – went away smiling. Her “soft” leadership skill of finding and calling out the best in others will take this little one far if her mother continues to encourage it.
I have read at least 50 books in the past three years on the subject of leadership. It comes with the territory of pursuing a doctorate on the subject. Yet the most important aspect of what I’m studying might not be addressed at all—how do we train tomorrow’s leaders—our kids?
More importantly, in a world exploding with change, how do I teach them to lead in a future territory quite unlike my own?
Tomorrow’s leaders will need to be more collaborative, diverse, quick-thinking and flexible than in the past. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning considers the “new” foundational leadership skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
The famous 7 top characteristics of success at Google are such skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others, having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues, being a good critical thinker and problem solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
So how do we go about teaching these kinds of soft leadership skills to our kids? Here are 5 differences between being loud and being a leader that will help our kids understand the best leadership skills.
Being First vs. Going First
To a child, going first might sound like a bonus. Who doesn’t want to always be first? First in the dessert line, first to open presents, first to choose a TV show—sounds great!
But going first and being first are two very different things. Managers tell others what to do and where to go, but leaders go there first.
Leaders test out the territory. They take the first risks. They make it easier for others to follow.
The future will change so quickly that a leader must be brave to jump into new ideas and ways of doing things—and she must jump first if she’s to lead.
This means teaching our kids to take risks now—allowing and even encouraging them to step out into not completely safe territory. In the process, we also teach them to learn the difference between acceptable risk and foolish risk.
We can’t hope that our kids will become leaders if we never let them practice. That requires stepping back and allowing them to step forward and, possibly, fall.
Some ways we can do this daily with our kids:
- Encourage her to volunteer for the task other kids are afraid to try. Let her know that failure at it is ok—at least she took a risk and learned.
- Ask him to think of a new way to clean his room or organize his time. This encourages him to take the lead in trying something new. After, you can talk about what worked and what he could do differently.
- Refuse (kindly) to solve her problems with the fourth-grade bullies (unless intervention is necessary). Tell her you know she can think of a way to deal with them, and be a sounding board for her thoughts. Leaders need to problem solve. If we handle all her problems, we will make her someone who always looks to others rather than believing in her own abilities.
- Nurture that skill of creativity by encouraging activities that require on-the-spot problem solving. Some of the best leadership training our girls received was in 4H, working on projects that they had to do by themselves, coming up with solutions to dilemmas, and defending their creative choices before judges.
- Teach him to encourage others to go first. Leaders don’t have to be first all the time. The best leaders teach others how to take risks and do their best work, too. They do what Violet did—call out the best qualities in others and applaud them.
The other difference between being and going first is that future leaders, more and more, will need to consider themselves on a collaborative level with others, not above them. This isn’t really a revelation. Jesus—considered at least a great teacher by most— said 2000 years ago that the last will be fist, and the one who wants to lead should be the first one to serve others.
Future generations, with their instant YouTube celebrity and everyone’s-an-expert status, haven’t much use for leaders who behave with superiority and entitlement. They want that 2000-year-old model of servant leadership.
Try modeling this by implementing the “leader for the day” idea in your family where each person gets to make decisions for one day. But do it with a twist. Yes, they get to choose special activities, meals, etc for the day But—only after they’ve also chosen five ways to help and serve other family members. Talk about how it felt to serve others, and ask the others how they feel about following the lead of someone who chooses to put them first.
Being Loud vs. Being Heard
We have a family of five super-introverts. One of my lifelong curses, it seems, is not to be heard, literally and metaphorically. We joke that we are the ones who have all the ideas, and a louder someone else runs with them and gets all the credit. In real life, it’s not all that funny not to be heard.
We tend to associate leadership with the one who speaks loudest and longest. The leaders of the future, however, will need to know when to speak, when to listen, and how to ensure everyone is heard. Leadership will be more collaborative and less “the loudest one wins.” We can train our kids in these skills by practicing them at home.
One good idea is to have regular family meetings where you take turns being the leader. Use this as valuable teaching time. If you’re discussing an idea, like the next family vacation, take the opportunity to teach listening and speaking skills.
Say things like:
- I think we need to hear from Maggie. Miles, how can you find out what she thinks?
- Tillie, do you think we listened to your idea? How did you feel when Owen didn’t let you finish? What’s a kind way to make sure everyone heard you?
- How can you find out more about your brother’s idea?
- What should we do if we don’t agree?
- Do you think everyone got a chance to speak?
- Can you repeat what your sister just said? Do you know what she meant?
- Is anyone taking up too much of the conversation? What should we do?
- What do you think the family leader should decide tonight?
Girls, in particular, are more likely to allow themselves to be talked over and interrupted. They’re also less likely to speak up and insist their point of view is heard. Girls, according to the research of Deborah Tannen, “Learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers. A group of girls will ostracize a girl who calls attention to her own superiority and criticize her.”
Our daughters, then, must especially practice speaking their minds and learning that they can be kind and insistent at the same time.
Be honest about hearing one another at home, first. If parents don’t really listen, kids won’t learn to ensure they’re heard. When you’re having a disagreement, get on their level. Look in their eyes. Ask how they’re feeling. Tell them you want to make sure you hear exactly what they want and need. Don’t respond if they answer—just listen and be present. Repeat back what you heard and ask if there’s anything else they want to say.
Then take your chance to do the same, so your child knows listening and hearing go both ways. Talk about how you feel (using I statements) and what you need. Ask your child to repeat it back.
You might still disagree, but your child has learned a lot about the importance of hearing and being heard. This leadership skill will be invaluable when she’s a doctor with a patient, a teacher facing a difficult staff meeting or a CEO presenting to the board of directors.
Being Bossy vs. Being Assured
We used to joke with our middle child that she was going to grow up to be a cruise director because she loved to coordinate everything and “convince” people to go along with those plans. Sometimes, we called her bossy, a word choice I regret and tried to eliminate.
While Emily still has a tendency to tell people what to do (ask her little sister!), her skills at coordination and strategic thinking fire her current excellence as a project manager. She has harnessed them for leadership, not bossiness.
There’s a difference.
Kids should not be allowed to direct one another around like little tyrants. Yet using words like “bossy” can shame natural leadership tendencies, making them feel that it’s wrong to want to lead and organize. Instead, notice their desire to lead and engage it constructively.
For instance, you could say –
- You’re very good at figuring out the best way to solve a problem. That’s fantastic!
- How do you think they feel if you tell them your idea is the best? What else could you say?
- Hey, I see that it frustrates you when the other kids won’t do things the way you want. Why is that?
- Do you think there’s a way to solve this problem with everyone’s ideas?
- How do you think you could convince them you have the best way to fix the situation?
- It hurt when they called you bossy, didn’t it? How can you explain why this is so important to you?
Leadership isn’t bossy—but it doesn’t shy away from believing in its own skills and strengths. If your child excels at problem solving, strategic thinking, or organization, praise that as leadership power—then teach her how to use it well.
Being Liked vs. Being Trusted
Working on this article, I asked my daughter what leaders her generation looked up to. Who is doing cool things? Whom do you trust? Her answers were very different to those two questions.
“Well, as a leader and a thinker, Elon Musk is amazing. But I’m not standing in line to get on his first space shuttle. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand—he’s real. He lived what he said. If he were alive, I’d trust him to lead me anywhere.” If the final definition of a leader is someone who is followed, Mr. Rogers wins.
It’s a difficult road to help children believe that being trusted is more important than being liked. Especially in the throes of those most difficult years—around 10-14—when social standing vacillates like top 40 songs, it can be a tough sell.
Ask your kids whom they most admire as leaders. Talk to them about the qualities that attract them in each person. Ask them questions. Here are a few I asked my own children.
- If that person wanted to lead you into something scary, would you follow? Why or why not?
- Which friends do you like and which do you trust? Are the answers different?
- Which ones do you think will be friends for the long term?
- If something terrible happened and you needed a good friend, which one would you turn to?
- Which ones would you follow into something uncertain? Why?
Then talk about your own experiences following someone who didn’t turn out to be trustworthy. What did you learn? How did you feel?
With older kids, talk about the following quote from Tod Bolsinger: “In uncharted territory, trust is as essential as the air we breathe. If trust is lost, the journey is over. . . Trust comes from the congruence of leaders repeatedly doing what we say.”
Ask them how they define trust. Talk about how hard is it to be the same person and do what you say all the time in school, where you feel like a different person to different people.
Friendships will change, and your child won’t always make the best possible choices. Keep talking about real friendship and encouraging the use of their gifts. If they choose to downplay those abilities for a time, let them know you still believe in them and you understand. Tell them you know they’re doing their best and learning, and ask what they could do differently next time.
Being Conforming vs. Being Flexible
Leaders of the future will need a ton of flexibility. We think our world is changing at warp speed—theirs will alter within hours sometimes. A good leader will have to think on their feet, mobilize people quickly, and be willing to change plans without possessiveness over what she had wanted to do.
Being too flexible, though, can be dangerous for a child. A willingness to listen to any opinion, conform to others’ expectations too readily, or change what he truly wants for someone else’s whim can hold our kids back from their dreams at best, lead them into real danger at worst. Where’s the middle line?
Teaching flexible thinking helps in both scenarios. If your child gets caught in a rigid loops of thinking, particularly, exercises like these can help:
- Teach self-talk. Child psychotherapist Katie Hurley suggests the following routine when a child is frustrated by unmet expectations. “Teach your child to take a few deep breaths, state the problem, consider at least three solutions, and choose one.”
- Change the rules. Make up different rules to a favorite game. Let your child create the rules. Then learn to play a different way.
- Talk to your child about changes you have to make daily when things don’t go your way or what you need doesn’t happen. Narrate your choices and changes. Make sure you model a willingness to change plans!
- Play games where kids have to come up with different uses for common objects. For instance, take kitchen items out of a bag and ask her to come up with a creative use that doesn’t involve cooking.
Margaret Wheatley said, “It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be. The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.”
In other words, collaboration, creativity, communication. Our kids will lead us into a new world, if we nurture the skills they will need to get us there.
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick action today, try one of the ideas listed in the article today.
- Have a “leader of the day” in your family once a week.
- Play a game with changed rules.
- Brainstorm five favorite leaders you both know
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
What is a leadership skill in your own life that needs a little skill freshening? Are you a flexible person? A person who takes risks? A person who listens to feedback without being defensive? Choose one and make a plan to model this better for your future leaders.
If leadership is serving others, ask your kids to present some volunteer opportunities for you as a family. Have each of them come up with an idea, research what you would need to do, and present the family with his or her plan.
Talk together about which one you’ll choose and why. Express appreciation for the passion, thoroughness, or persuasion that went into their work. Let that child lead the family by finding a time and place that works and the things you’ll need.
After you’ve gone (at least once, but maybe you’ll make it a regular thing!), talk about how that child showed leadership skills in all the phases of the project.