Raising future leaders: Top skills to teach your kids

By Robert Half on 19 June 2013

What advice do the experts have for helping your kids grow into future leaders?

Parents may question the wisdom of teaching their kids to lead – it’s tough enough for most of us getting them to follow! But children who learn the skills of leadership from an early age will develop valuable qualities such as a positive attitude, resilience and a willingness to admit to mistakes and learn from them.

Schools offer some opportunities to learn about leadership, but parents can help a lot. In doing so, they will set their kids on a path to a happier, more fulfilling personal life, say experts such as parenting educator Michael Grose.

Grose, an author of eight parenting books, has developed a student leadership program for school teachers, which starts in the second-last year of primary school. However, Grose believes parents can and should develop their children’s leadership potential. “In some ways, what I consider to be effective parenting is developing children’s ability to self-lead and to lead others,” he says.

Others, such Scott D. Krenz on the anti-bullying website Kidz ’n Power, believe leadership learning starts earlier. “You can walk into a kindergarten class and within a very short period of time you will know which children are going to be the leaders in the class and who will be the followers,” he writes.

Why encourage leadership skills?

Krenz argues there are five valuable qualities of leadership that make it a vital life skill:

  1. A positive attitude: The ability to believe in your own goals and abilities in the face of discouragement from others.
  2. Overcoming adversity: Reframing problems into “challenges” to stay focused and get over, around or through all sorts of barriers.
  3. Perseverance: Sticking to a goal – a training program, work assignment, friendship – is difficult, while quitting is easy. Leaders know when to persevere and when to quit.
  4. Commitment: Learning from mistakes rather than being discouraged by them.
  5. Excellence: Doing the best you can in every situation.

Leadership skills can be used in both personal and public situations, Grose says.

When kids learn personal organisational skills, such as how to use their diaries, they will do better at school. When they learn to take responsibility for a group – for example, by participating in Girl Guides or a sports team – they start getting “into the leadership mindset”, he says. In a similar way, kids can use their communication skills to get along with friends, or to lead a team on a school project.

How can parents help?

Grose laments that one fabulous opportunity to develop leadership as a child is diminishing: looking after siblings. Because families are smaller, and parent more protective and anxious, there are fewer chances for siblings to look after each other. Thus learning to think ahead, solve problems, be resourceful and consider life from someone else’s point of view is no longer a common opportunity for children. That means parents have to develop other opportunities to mould the self-confidence that accompanies mastering such skills.

These opportunities tend to be very individual. “Parents need to discover the situations in which each of their kids thrives, and create opportunities for their kids in those situations,” Grose says. Some kids love the outdoors, so bushwalking or orienteering might suit them. Others will be sporty and might thrive at netball or football.

In “ How to Develop Leadership Skills in Children”, Sarah Dray suggests that parents should focus first and foremost on communication skills. “Good leaders are good communicators,” she writes, “and this can be encouraged from an early age by working on reading and speaking.”

Even pre-literate kids can be helped by working on listening skills. “You can encourage this by reading something to them and then asking them to relate the story back to you. Ask questions and expect answers, no matter how silly they are, as this means they are listening and learning to interact.”

Day also encourages independence within safe limits, such as making breakfast and setting the table, recognising your kids’ achievements, letting them do something if they say they can so they can learn from their efforts, and helping them to be organised by giving them the power to make decisions. Parents can still retain some control by limiting the decisions to options. For example, “Would you like to paint your bedroom wall turquoise or tangerine?”

It is not just parents and kids who benefits from learning leadership skills. Grose says as a community we benefit when kids grow up a bit tougher than they are now and show self-confidence.

A good foundation of leadership experience also sets kids up for early adulthood. “When we reach our 20s,” Grose says, “we tend to reach into our childhood experience for insights about what we can do and how we can fit in.”

Learning leadership skills, such as independence and resilience, helps children lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Parents can have a big impact on their children’s ability to lead by taking an active role in nurturing those skills, reaping the benefit as their kids develop into young adults who can problem solve, consider other people and organise themselves personally and professionally.

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