Nurture The Leader Inside Your Students

Understanding the paradoxes within this generation

Leadership Development - Kids //

Something rare is happening nationwide. It is a paradox within this generation of children that we must figure out how to harness.

On one hand, there is a coming together of talent, opportunity and desire. We have a generation of kids who want to seize the moment. They actually believe they can change the world. The Prudential Community Awards are given out each year to youth who exhibit exceptional leadership and service to their community. Last year, tens of thousands of names were entered to win, and the list keeps growing. Eight and nine-year-old children are thinking big. David Spangler, Director of Market Research for Levi’s wrote, “This is a generation that must be reckoned with. They are going to overtake the country.” Unlike the depressed Generation X of the 1980s, this new batch of kids sees the mess that the world is in, but they feel compelled to change it. They want to use their talent and technology to feed the world’s hunger for hope. Listen to what educators are saying about our kids’ potential.

Martha Sharma, judge of the National Geography Bee said, “The kids know more and more every single year.”  Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Dean of Admissions at Harvard, commented on the incoming freshman class by saying: “What’s really extraordinary is the quality of the applicant pool.”  David Berliner of Arizona State University shares: “The number of students with IQs of 145 is now about 18 times greater than it was two generations ago.”Needless to say, all of this potential excites me.

At the same time, doctors warn parents and educators about another phenomenon. There are a growing percentage of kids who lag behind, vegging in front of a video game for hours, sedated by Ritalin or Prozac, becoming obese and lacking motivation to interact with peers, outside of a text message or a comment on Club Penguin or Facebook. We hear about these kids all the time. They are the opposite of the children described above. Dr. Leonard Sax, MD and PhD in Psychology, is especially concerned with the boys. Chemicals we’ve placed in plastics have caused an imbalance inside of our kids’ systems. It is causing girls to enter puberty faster than ever, sometimes at nine years old. For boys, it reduces the percentage of testosterone in their body. There is a perfect storm of technology, medication, teaching methods, and parenting styles that’s postponing their maturation. This growing percentage of “slacker” children has the same potential as the “super kids” but their environment has postponed their ambition and maturity.

A generation of paradox

You’ve likely met both of these kinds of children in your church or organization. The first batch is those kids who immediately sign-up for short-term mission trips or local projects you sponsor. The second batch is those kids who make you feel like you’re raising the dead to involve them in anything except pure entertainment. Both types of children are part of a generation of paradox. These are the children born since 1990—the tail end of Generation Y (born between 1984-2002) and the early kids of the Homelander Generation (born between 2003-2021). The paradox can be described below.

PARADOX ONE: They are sheltered … yet pressured. 

Many kids are sheltered from harsh realities by parents, yet feel more pressure from them to make the grade, make the team and make mom proud.

PARADOX TWO: They are self-absorbed … yet generous.

Students today want to change the world, but often live in a self-absorbed world themselves, at the center of attention.

PARADOX THREE: They are social … yet isolated by technology. 

Students are in constant contact with friends yet often stay connected with technology in the isolation of their room.

PARADOX FOUR: Adventuresome … yet protected. 

Life has been like a reality TV show for them, exciting yet controlled. It’s entertaining but structured and monitored by adults.

PARADOX FIVE: They are team oriented … yet diverse. 

They’re more ethnically diverse than ever, yet grew up playing soccer in teams and working on projects in groups. They experience both harmony and diversity.

PARADOX SIX: They are visionary … yet vacillating.

Their problem isn’t a lack of vision; it’s quite the opposite. They have ten visions and find it hard to say no to anything that comes their way.

PARADOX SEVEN: Their orientation is high achievement … yet high maintenance.

I believe these students will transform the world but may need constant feedback along the way.

Nurturing the leader inside of them

So what do we do with this generation of paradox? I have an idea. At least part of the solution is to nurture leadership qualities in kids. Yep, all of them—the “super kids” and the “slacker” kids. I’m suggesting we help them see themselves as leaders. I made a discovery over the last thirty years. I found when I cast vision of being a leader to kids, when I furnish them with a leadership perspective, they begin to realize the potential God placed inside of them.

Consider this. There are two kinds of leaders in the world, and every one of our kids fit into one of these two kinds. They are either HABITUAL leaders or SITUATIONAL leaders. Habitual leaders are the ones who lead out of habit. They’re the kids who take over the kickball game at recess. Whatever group they are in, they tend to take charge. I believe they represent about 10-15 percent of the population. The rest of our children are situational leaders. These are the kids who assume they’re not really leaders at all. However, when you put them in the right situation—one that matches their gifts, passions and strengths—they know what to do. They seem to have intuition about that area. They are comfortable and confident. And they have influence. I believe we must help our children find their situation, the area where God has gifted them to influence. In fact, our role is to enable kids to discover their optimal …

  • Situation – The environment where they feel most at home and intuitive.
  • Strength – The environment where they can use their primary gifts.
  • Style – The environment where they can serve in a manner that fits them.
  • Subject – The environment where the issues matter to them.

Three kinds of kids

At Growing Leaders, we believe psychologists Spears and Braun were right when they suggested years ago that there are three kinds of kids. I have taken it a step further by saying that all three of these kinds of children can be leaders. They will simply have different styles. Let’s examine them:

  1. Drivers.  These are the strong-willed students. They’re often stubborn. They want to be in charge. They are natural leaders, but they must learn specific qualities that are not intuitive for them, like patience, people skills and planning. As an adult, you must be direct with a “driver” since they have strong ideas of their own.
  2. Diplomats.  These are the opposites of the drivers. Diplomats are harmonious, cooperative and value peacemaking. They’re relational and make marvelous leaders as everyone loves them. However, they must learn to stand for their convictions and gain their own vision. To lead them, simply seek cooperation.
  3. Dreamers.  These are the most misunderstood students. They are creative, reflective and imaginative, and often are quickly diagnosed as ADHD if they can’t sit still. They will lead as visionaries, but must harness their own energy and ideas. To lead them well, offer them as many options as possible.

Cultivate healthy Habitudes® inside of them

Let me suggest some Habitudes® you can use to nurture leadership in your kids. Habitudes® are images that form leadership habits and attitudes. We developed them for an EPIC generation—kids who are Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connected. Try practicing the following Habitudes® in your ministry:

1. Play chess not checkers. Checkers all look alike and move alike, so you treat the pieces all alike. In chess, however, the only way you can win is to know the strengths of each piece. Mediocre leaders play checkers with their people and get average results. Great leaders play chess and connect with others at the point of their uniqueness.

2. Build thermostats not thermometers. Both of these instruments have to do with the temperature. One merely reflects the climate; the other sets the climate. We must cultivate kids who don’t just mirror culture, but who set the spiritual tone for their peers.

3. Be a river not a flood. Floods are water going in every direction. Rivers flow in one direction. You must flow, not flood. You must become focused, not fuzzy. You can do anything in your ministry but you can’t do everything. Narrow and clarify your focus.

What should your focus be? Just two years ago, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army commented on the newest West Point graduates by saying: “This is the most inspired and inspiring group of graduates we’ve had since 1945.” I say it’s a great time to look seriously at our kids and build a new bunch of leaders.





About the Author

Dr. Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, ( a non-profit organization based in Atlanta which partners with churches, schools and organizations to develop leadership qualities in kids. He is the author of the best-selling Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes and Nurturing the Leader Within Your Child.