Creating Natural Leaders

Posted in Blog by EE Team with No Comments

Feb2014 03

If you think there are ‘natural leaders’ in your class… it might be time to think again.

Education Associate Charlotte Ellis reflects on her time in the classroom and a teaching myth that is worth discussing

Thinking back to my time as a teacher, I don’t think I’ll be alone in having thought of some pupils as ‘natural leaders’ and potentially assumed them to be among a ‘gifted’ minority. Speaking to friends and colleagues it seems that lots of people make the same assumption, with the idea of ‘natural leaders’ appearing to be an accepted and intuitive view amongst many teachers. Because it’s nature over nurture surely with leadership? And leaders are born, right?

It Turns Out I Was Wrong
After two years studying for a MEd in Leadership and many lectures, seminars and essays later, it appears the evidence firmly supports the belief that the qualities of leadership can be learnt. And whilst, as suspected, there may be some more naturally inclined towards leadership, all children have the potential leadership skills which can be nurtured and enhanced with the right support, encouragement and opportunities. As this quote from James Kouzes and Barry Posner from The Leadership Challenge suggests:

“Leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices. Leadership is not something mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood by ordinary people. Given the opportunity for feedback and practice, those with the desire and persistence to lead can substantially improve their abilities to do so.”

What Is The Relevance For Schools?
Whilst the world of business and management has been rather ‘au fait’ with the value of good leadership and the concept that “leaders are made, not born”, for several decades, it would seem the education sector is not.

So why the delay? Evidence suggests this could be a real missed opportunity as studies consistently show early experiences in life impact leadership potential in adulthood. For example, the child psychologist Gardener identified that personal traits such as assertiveness and the ability to understand others, were significantly influenced by childhood and adolescent experiences. If that wasn’t reason enough, consider this quote by Karl Fisch (Education columnist for Huffington Post):

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It is therefore unsurprising that a study by Stanford Research Institute and Carnegie Mellon Foundation identified 75% of long term career success depends on soft skills and only 25% only technical knowledge. Similarly, in recent poll from the Centre for Creative Leadership employers identified the lack of leadership opportunities, role models and mentoring, as areas of real concern for young people entering the work force. Never before have developing skills, such as leadership, in our young people been as vital to the economy.

What Does Good Leadership Look Like For School Children?
A common misconception amongst many children, and teachers alike, is that a leader is often the loudest or bossiest in a group. In the past I admit to making this mistake. However, during my time at Enabling Enterprise I’ve seen that this is far from the case. Students from the age of six and all abilities can learn to take the lead. We should be encouraging children to view effective leaders as those who listen well to others, encourage others, support others to work towards a common goal, and to lead by example.

The article, Leadership for Children by Annie Everitt suggests the following are all essential building blocks:

  1. Verbal expression: including listening and communicating effectively
  2. Collaboration and teamwork: realising that a group can achieve more than going it alone
  3. Negotiation and compromise: getting the job done and everyone is still happy
  4. Planning: being able to break down the task into smaller tasks and use check lists
  5. Persistence and determination: a foundation of personal pride
  6. Problem-solving: tackling challenges without becoming demoralised or frustrated

It really seems that leadership can’t be separated from the students’ wider enterprise skills.

How Can We Develop Leadership From a Young Age?
So, it might seem that young people can learn to be good leaders, but is it really possible to develop such skills with the youngest students? I think it is.

If we take a look at Kolb’s theories of ‘learning by doing’ leadership development strategies, we see they emphasise the importance of giving children opportunities to practice their leadership skills, and to be able to reflect on their achievements and areas to improve. Learning to lead in this way has been shown to encourage co-operation, competition and social skills.

“It is through games and activities which encourage their communication skills, team work and resilience which lay the foundations for children to explore and initiate their leadership qualities.”

Here are a few suggestions that I have come up with to help children develop leadership skills:

  1. Define leadership – talk to children about what it means to be a good leader
  2. Give them opportunities to put their leadership into practise
  3. Encourage them to reflect on their experiences and identify what was challenging
  4. Children learn by watching others so model good leadership behaviour
  5. Create opportunities for children to see or discuss positive role models – you could compare famous leaders and talk about the traits that make them good leaders, as well as their differences
  6. Teach children how to see things from another’s point of view – focus on listening carefully and how to respond calmly
  7. Emphasise that it is important for everyone to experience being a leader, so they can be understanding when following another leader
  8. Allow children opportunities to make decisions, e.g. what activity to do – they can learn begin to learn the concepts of responsibility and consequences
  9. For those a little more reluctant to take the lead, show them how to break down a task to get the job done
  10. Help them build their leadership self-confidence – give them opportunities to succeed at leading and give them appropriate and praise specific to their leadership

At Enabling Enterprise, we’ve seen time and time again, that the students who thrive with the responsibility of running their own project, organising others and taking the lead are often a surprise. And we’ve also seen that putting these ideas into practice can shift the skills of every potential student leader in the room.

There are many ways to help your students become leaders – and to re-evaluate which of your students really are the ‘natural’ ones.

Enabling Enterprise
Enabling Enterprise programmes help students develop a well-rounded set of enterprise skills, experiences of the world and aspirations. To find out more about how we develop skills in our young people, including leadership, check out Our Impact Report

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