Kiddie Leaders

Leadership / Preschool //

Leadership training for preschoolers


According to a Harvard Business Review publication, the average age of first formal leadership training is 42, long beyond character formation and sad to say, after many bad habits are learned. Ironically, another survey shows that 50 percent of managers suggest leadership training should begin before the age of 10 and 21 percent recommend 5 and under. Fat chance finding organizational leadership resources designed for preschoolers. At least that’s what we discovered two years ago when we started pursuing the audacious idea of teaching 2 to 5-year-olds about leadership and some, how to lead. Most adults grin; some snicker and scoff at this idea.


But anyone who’s worked with preschoolers knows that certain children display the ability to get others to follow them. They’re the pied pipers who say, “We’re going to play school and I’m going to be the teacher. You sit over there.” Sometimes we smile. At other times we pull out our hair, because these embryonic CEOs can also be strong-willed, bossy, opinionated, and act like they own the place. Welcome to the world of kiddie leaders.


Eight years ago, we began designing the world’s first, executive-caliber training curriculum for 10 to 13-year-olds. Prior to that, no one had attempted to age-size organizational leadership training for preteens. After releasing this program and then a teen version, we started work on 2 to 9-year-olds. Many presumed this a silly endeavor, but what we’ve learned is that the very young and very, very young can gain leadership experiences and some can actually learn how to lead effectively.


Defining Leadership

The younger you go, the more people confuse leadership with other developmental goals such as self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, character and citizenship. While these are all good qualities, they do not distinguish leading from other qualities. Leadership is the process of helping people accomplish together what they could not by themselves. Thus, in our use of the word, you can’t “lead yourself.” That’s self-discipline and self-motivation.



Teaching Social Process

Even though only a few at an early age demonstrate natural leadership abilities, everyone should learn how leadership works. Throughout history, we see people naively following evil and incompetent leaders, leaving terrible scars on society as a result. Imagine what it would be like if everyone understood how individuals influence others to do things they normally would not do. World War II would never have occurred. Everyone needs to be able to identify good and bad leaders, avoiding the latter. When people refuse to follow, leaders can’t lead. The result is that bullies wouldn’t be able to recruit minions and ethical leaders would gain ground.



Aptitude is Essential

Are leaders born or made? Yes. We’ve learned that the younger you go, the more a child needs aptitude in order to learn how to lead. Years ago, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner wrote about multiple intelligences, suggesting eight areas where people possess varying levels of potential. This overlays nicely with the biblical concept of spiritual gifts (Eph. 4, Romans 12, 1 Cor. 12). These graces come from our Creator, whether through genetics, parental conditioning, or Divine endowment. Regardless of how or when these gifts arrive, “children are books to be read, not to be written.”


Kids with an aptitude for learning leadership typically demonstrate a variety of behavioral indicators. Think of this as a software program, allowing them to process data related to leading. As we began working with preschoolers, we discovered some slightly unique and different indicators than those six and older.


For example, one difference is that kiddie leaders enjoy being the teacher’s helper. While “helping” a teacher might be perceived as a non-leader inclination in older children, preschool leaders seem to enjoy basking in the shadow of authority of a managing adult. The mini-me perception of being in charge reflects a natural disposition toward power.


Another preschool leader aptitude indicator is role play. Kiddie leaders tend to initiate group make believe. “We’re going to play church and I’m going to be the pastor. You can be the usher and you can sing in the choir.” They possess the ability to interrupt a peer’s previous activity to join the leader in his/her wishes.




During our work with preschoolers, we’ve discovered a few challenges regarding leadership development. The first, ironically, involves those who typically work with preschoolers. Most of them are not leader-oriented. (I apologize mentioning this in an article most likely to be read by preschool workers.) Good-hearted, sweet, and maternal are all positive qualities of preschool workers, but leaders often seem to avoid working with this age group, because they perceive them to be higher maintenance and lower satisfaction. As a result, we found that many preschool teachers do not readily see the value of leadership training for the very, very young. Our primary laboratory is with a private church school in San Jose, California. We’ve held various meetings to discuss the rationale for preschool leadership training, yet administrators confess that some teachers do not buy into the process, resisting a leadership impetus for the very young.


Another challenge is teaching the concept of “team.” Developmentally, most preschoolers are still very self-centered, preoccupied with discovering their individuality from mom and dad. Therefore, they’ve not quite learned how to work together. This social skill sometimes requires more time and practice than with more mature 6 to 9-year-olds. As a result, learning the language of “team” as well as reducing the size and thus the complexity, makes more sense. For example, in our teen program, we recommend teams of 4-8, in preteens 4-6, but in preschoolers 3-4.



Developing Activities

So how do you create leadership training activities for your preschoolers? Although this is akin to revealing our “secret herbs and spices,” here are some best practice ideas that can help you begin shaping your own executive development program for preschoolers.


Team. Adapt playtime activities that can be done in teams of 3 or 4. Leadership is a social art, so working individually doesn’t teach leading. Getting people to work together, whether 3 or 83, can be a challenging process.


Team Leader. Designate a team leader (TL) who is the child with authority, charged to help the others work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals. You can denote the TL with a lanyard, sticker, or patch. Let kids take turns, but start with those demonstrating stronger indicators.


Coaching. The best approach to very young leader training involves assigning an adult or teen to each team, NOT to lead, but rather to coach the TL during the activity. Although we encourage the use of Socratic coaching at the preteen level, preschoolers benefit from a skill-appropriate style. The following graphic offers five coaching styles, so that you offer just the right amount of help.



Coaching Techniques (3)




Following is a description of five coaching methods. The goal is to quickly assess what style is best suited for the Team Leader in the given situation. There is nothing wrong with using styles on the left end of the continuum, although whenever possible, start on the right and move to the left until the Team Leader seems most empowered. When possible, help the student progress toward the right when leading subsequent activities.


  1. Tell. At this level, the teacher pretty much needs to direct the Team Leader, providing specific ideas for helping the team achieve its goal. The Team Leader is actually following the adult who is telling him/her what to do. This should be reserved for students who just don’t seem to know what to do and lack the ability to get peers to comply. This style is for students who may not have observable leadership ability.


  1. Tell Plus. The difference between this and #1 is that you reserve the role of the Team Leader to assign the various tasks to the team members. The Team Leader thus gets to experience the authority of leading that the teacher is providing. This style is for very young leaders or those who may not have natural leadership ability.


  1. Sell. At this level the teacher is helping the Team Leader brainstorm, with the team, ideas for accomplishing the activity. Then, the teacher helps the Team Leader determine the best ideas and plan, who then “sells” it to the team. The teacher may need to assist in the “sell” if the team members don’t respond initially. This style is for more confident students, but those who may or may not demonstrate natural leadership ability.


  1. Sell and Del. At this level, the teacher goes back and forth between levels 3 and 5 coaching, based on the situational needs of the Team Leader. These may vary per the difficulty of the activity and experience level of the Team Leader. This style is for more natural leaders, but those who may lack confidence.


  1. Del. At this level, the teacher does not offer direct ideas, but rather asks strategic questions to create an awareness in the Team Leader of what s/he might want to be thinking about. You provide a sort of inner conscious, but you’re not directing the Team Leader what to do. Questions may have to do with time, team involvement, strategizing, as well as affirmations. This style is for confident and more natural leaders.


The cool thing is that the cutting edge of leadership development isn’t in the pastor’s study, church boardroom, young adult Sunday school class or even the youth ministry. It’s in the toddler and preschool classes. Don’t wait until it’s late. My friend, Ann Ortlund, wrote a book several years ago titled Children are Wet Cement. Imagine the impact we could make on the church and society if we got to leaders while they were wet cement.



Recommended Resources

  • We Wait too Long to Train Our Leaders by Jack Zenger, Harvard Business Review/HBR Blog Network, Dec. 17, 2012.
  • Expanding the Leadership Equation (White Paper) by Ellen Van Velsor, PhD and Joel Wright: Center for Creative Leadership, Oct., 2012, pp. 3-4.
  • KiddieLead Activities Training Manual, LeadYoung Publishing, Monterey, CA com, 2013.


For a free Social Influence Survey (SIS) for preschoolers, go to and click on the KiddieLead SIS. Take this on a child. Only parents see the results, so be sure to click the “parent” responder button if you’d like to see the tabulated results with a key that explains them.










About the Author

Alan E. Nelson, EdD is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and founder of KidLead Inc., ( He lives in Monterey, CA with his family and has pastored for over 20 years.