Identifying young leaders

Leadership Development - Kids //

We all know what WWJD means, but what about WDJD? (What DID Jesus do?)  Christmas commemorates the coming of Christ, a reminder to assess not only why Jesus came but also what He did.  Jesus’ primary ministry method involved developing leaders, those who would multiply His work.  As children’s ministry leaders, mimicking the work of Jesus involves hand-selecting those with the ability to multiply our impact; we’re talking about kids with a gift for influencing others.

One of the greatest gifts we can present to a child is to recognize how he is wired.  As a children’s minister, you possess a unique opportunity to see kids socializing without the direct influence of a parent.  This provides you with a sneak peek into the leadership potential of a child, if you know the signs to watch for.  That makes you a key player in God’s big picture!  Unless we get to leaders while they’re moldable, we stand a far less chance of developing their character and giving them a head start.

Both psychology and theology tell us that we’re more apt to be successful in life if we focus on our strengths.  In order to do that, we need to uncover them.  Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, introduced us to multiple intelligences in 1983.  Although typical school education only focuses on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences, Gardner identified six others, including: bodily (kinesthetic), spatial, musical, naturalist, intrapersonal and interpersonal.   Within interpersonal, Gardener locates the domain of leadership.

Recently, I met with Dr. William Damon in his office at Stanford University.  Bill is the director of the Center for Adolescence at Stanford, a professor in the school of education and the author of “The Moral Child.”  Dr. Damon said, “No other country in the world values equality more than America.  That is a good value.  But a value taken too far can become counterproductive.  Because we want to treat everyone the same, we overlook the children who have a unique ability to be highly creative and possess the energy to get things done.  Thus, we diminish their development.”  He was referring specifically to how our educational systems fail to recognize and develop young leaders.

We define leadership as the process of helping people work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals.  Leaders are those who get leadership going.  This reflects a definition of organizational leadership, as opposed to personal leadership (character, responsibility, self-esteem, service, faith).  Based on this definition, our estimate is that less than 20 percent possess a medium to high aptitude for leadership.  We refer to this group as habitual leaders—those who intuitively seek opportunities to influence.  In a way, they can’t not lead.

While we do not claim to predict leadership success, we can estimate aptitude—literally the ability to learn leadership.  The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Naturally, the ability to learn how to lead provides a significant advantage over the rest.  Children’s ministry staff and parents should be alert to aptitude characteristics.  Believe it or not, you can often begin seeing these indicators as early as 2 or 3 years of age, when toddlers begin socializing.  Although our work up to now has been with preteens, we’re in the early stages of starting a leadership training program for preschoolers.

Here are seven of the most common social behaviors you can observe and measure that indicate a high leadership aptitude.

1. Other kids listen to the child when s/he speaks.  We all know that air

time does not equate with being heard.  Young influencers speak, turn heads, quiet others, and get noticed, regardless of how much they talk.

2. Other kids seek the child’s opinion.  Even when quiet, young leaders

are sought out, so that other kids can determine their views based on the recognized opinion leaders.  “Hey, Jesse, what are we going to play at recess?”  “Jenni, what do you think about that?”

3. The child has been accused of being bossy and/or opinionated.  Although some young leaders have learned to express their influence less dominantly, chances are high that the little boss-moss in your midst possesses a strong leadership aptitude.  Observe a group of preschoolers in free play.  A few of them naturally set the tone and organize activities for the others, thus demonstrating their inclination to lead early.

4. The child has gotten into trouble for disrupting class.  Adults are frequently irked when a child steals the attention and the compliance they seek.  Budding leaders frequently get pegged as troublemakers.  But savvy adults realize they can tap this influence for the positive if they don’t react adversely, befriending the young leader and empowering her/him.

5. The child negotiates well with peers and adults.   We’re not talking about throwing a tantrum, but rather the ability to state a wish, offer logical support, and pitch persuasive reasons. “Someday you’re going to be a lawyer” implies the cultural misperception that leadership is an adult quality, when in reality kids who are able to plead their case without whining are already leading.

6. The child is project oriented and ambitious Chances are low that kids who love hours of gaming, TV watching, and sitting around are high in this aptitude.  Young leaders think projects, often requiring others to accomplish.  Just as adult leaders continually head up projects, catalyze change, and seem dissatisfied with maintaining, you see similar traits budding in children.

7. The child is selected by adults to “be in charge” of activities.  Society has a way of intuitively selecting those whom we like to follow.  This transcends popularity, which has more to do with likability than organizational leading.  Popular-only kids lack the acumen to problem solve in groups and are often unwilling to risk their popularity for the cause, which is what leaders must do at times.

Although many children may possess one or two of these qualities, when you see an array of them in kids, chances are they possess strong leadership aptitude.  Instead of assuming they’ll grow up to be leaders “someday”, we owe it to them and society to begin developing them now.  How to do that is the theme of this new series in K! Magazine.  One of the best things you can do is gather your ministry staff together, have them read this article and then take 15-20 minutes to develop a list of kids who best reflect these qualities.  Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to begin funneling those kids toward roles where they can experience leading in the church.

If you would like a more thorough aptitude assessment, take a Social Influence Survey (free) on a child (www.kidlead.com).  This is a 5-point scale based on multiple-choice responses to 25 questions, completed by an adult who has observed the child in social settings.  Scores of 1.0 – 2.9 reflect a low aptitude. Based on our research in young leader training over the years, we’ve found kids in this range have a very difficult time learning to lead, even when they receive clear instructions.  Scores of 3.0 – 3.5 are what we refer to as being “on the bubble.”  During preteen years, when cognitions elevate, some of them step up and others do not.  But from 3.6 and up, we find a strong ability to both learn and highly enjoy leadership training opportunities.  If you complete a SIS on a child, be sure to click “parent” as the responder, so that you receive an automated score along with a key to better understand the instrument.

Young leader development begins between your ears, realizing that kids can lead if God has wired them to do so.  The next step is to identify those who demonstrate an aptitude for leading.  If we do this in our ministries, we’ll have the chance to develop leaders while they’re moldable, not moldy.





About the Author

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