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Don’t Wait: Teach Your Kids the Leadership Skills They Need to Thrive & Prosper

The Big Idea

In schools, colleges, and the workplace, there’s a growing leadership and engagement crisis – one that executives and educators rank as a top concern. Yet driving engagement is an ongoing challenge, and the average age for formal leadership development is 42.[i]

As parents, we’re also concerned. We’re understandably anxious about the increasingly competitive world in which our kids are growing up. Yet we’re uncertain about how best to equip them with the tools they need to do well without risking well-being.

Embedding leadership development opportunities into our kids’ daily experiences addresses both concerns. Equipping kids with the skills they need to take the lead serves them well today and prepares them to engage and lead effectively through college and their future life and career. Plus, it’s more productive, constructive, and enjoyable for us and for our kids - even in the midst of all the hard work and the inevitable challenges.

Here’s how to do it.

The Challenge for Families

When my colleagues and I conduct leadership development training for professionals, one of the topics of greatest interest to the crowd that gathers at the end of the session is how they can develop leadership skills in their kids.

We're uneasy. In today’s competitive, college-prep communities, highly involved parents often prioritize performance and achievement above all else. Why? Because the competition is fierce. And our kids' futures are at stake. And everyone else is doing it. The vast majority of kids’ time is spent participating in activities led by adults – coaches, instructors, teachers, tutors, and parents. Follow the program. Follow the rules. Follow directions.

Our intentions are good, but the evidence shows that this approach is robbing our kids of the types of experiences that are essential to developing the mindset and skill set they need to lead well, do well, and be well. Not only are stress, distress, and anxiety up,[ii] but preparedness for college, work, and life is down. [iii]

Leadership offers a productive, constructive, and affirmative solution that can give your kids an edge.

The Leadership Edge

There’s a growing consensus in business and academia that leadership is not dependent upon position, does not require charisma, is not soft stuff, and best of all, can be taught. It’s true in families too. It turns out the most effective leadership development approach for parents’ mirrors perfectly the most effective approach for professionals – and it’s one we’re all familiar with.

The dynamics in all organizations, including the small, non-profit organization we know as family, are based on the social, biological, and psychological sciences that govern all human actions and interactions. These dynamics also dovetail nicely with the stages of child development.

The way in which our family functions provides the first, most powerful model of leadership for our kids. As such, parents have an opportunity to be intentional about the way we lead our families, and how we teach and reinforce highly valued leadership skills.

The forward-thinking families we work with[iv] articulate the definitions and behaviors of leadership in an affirmative, productive, and constructive way —creating a family culture where each member can learn to lead well in order to be well and do well.

Leadership Definitions: Consider the definitions we use with families that even the youngest of kids can grasp:

  • Small l leadership: Making decisions and taking actions every day that have positive and productive outcomes

  • Big L Leadership: Mobilizing yourself and/or others to pursue a worthwhile goal

Attributes of Leaders: And consider the attributes of effective leaders for which the roots are planted in childhood:

  • Responsible: I know WHAT to do & I step up to do it.

  • Resilient: I know WHY I’m the one to do it & so I stay with it, even when it’s hard.

  • Resourceful: I know HOW to do it & how to work with others to do it.

How You Can Take Action

We use two tools that have proven to be effective in facilitating the intentional development of a leadership mindset and skill set. These foundational tools represent a synthesis of extensive research in the field. Future posts will expand on the research behind each element and provide tips on how to take action with kids of any age – from Pre-K to Pre-Professional.

Tool 1: The WIN Map In order to build the EQ and mindset that foster leading well, being well, and doing well, it is essential for kids to be given the time, space and guidance to tune into

• How they’re innately Wired — the natural strengths, talents, and skills they use to approach situations and people in their lives

• Their emerging Interests — identify the things that they like, like to do, and that they care about

• The Needs they discover in their world — family, school, and community

The WIN Map

When kids (+ young adults + adults) discover, develop and use their innate Wiring to address Needs in areas that are of Interest to them, they engage and excel naturally. In mapping WIN, kids experience a sense of purpose and value that sustains engagement, drives intrinsic motivation, and allows them to navigate their path through college selection, major selection, and career selection with greater confidence.

Take Action: Map your WIN first, and share it with your kids. Give your kids time and space to experience and tune into their WIN - at home, school, and in their community activities. Take note when you see them demonstrate or apply a talent and when you see their eyes light up about something that interests them. Share your observations and help them make connections when you see them making a meaningful contribution using their Wiring in areas of Interest to them.

Tool 2: The START Leadership Process The START Leadership Process is effective in facilitating both organizational and project leadership. START is a synthesis of compelling research organized into 5 steps that you can use personally, professionally, and with your family.

S: Articulate Your Strategy - Vision, Values & Goals

T: Select Tactics to achieve the Strategy

A: Assess progress to stay on track

R: Establish Routines to link daily work to Tactics

T: Embed Training to develop the skills required to complete Routines

Take Action: Begin to notice what you say and do and how well it aligns with a leadership approach: are you micromanaging work your kids are capable of doing or are you supporting the acquisition of skills they need to do their own work - and then allowing them to do it? In order to drive greater alignment, identify your top 5 values, your goals, and your strategic vision, and draft a Strategy for your family.

When and how you engage your kids in the process will depend on their age and the openness of your current relationship with them. Younger kids are eager to participate. Older kids may choose to wait and watch for a period of time as you demonstrate actions that reinforce the development of leadership and your belief in them as being capable. Follow up with the next steps - Tactics, Assessment, Routines, and Training to ensure what you say and do each day aligns with your Strategy - Vision, Values, and Goals.


All kids are born with the capacity to engage, to innovate, and to lead. In our research and that of the scores of others, we find that the kids who fare best in preparedness and well-being have had opportunities to discover, to practice - celebrating mistakes as an essential step on the path to mastery - and to develop their leadership skills and abilities in many areas over many years.

Given the opportunity, kids learn to take the lead in small and large ways. When experiences are designed to build and scaffold over time, which facilitates increasing levels of responsibility and independence, kids thrive and prosper.

Intrinsically motivated and emotionally intelligent, the kids raised with this model demonstrate more meaningful, engaged behaviors at school, at home, and ultimately at work when compared to the extrinsically motivated kids for whom behaving, performing and achieving, and building a résumé for college admissions are the defining objectives. They experience broad success without sacrificing well-being, and they become the leaders we hoped they would be.

You can START now to create an environment at home where your kids can discover, develop, and become their best selves as they learn to take the lead in their own lives. In the process, you'll not only give them a competitive advantage, you'll prepare the next generation of leaders our organizations and the world need.

For Discussion Are you concerned about the high cost of high pressure in college prep communities? What challenges / opportunities are you seeing in your community? In your family? In your workplace? Let’s start a conversation, take action, and shift the culture in our communities for good.


[i] We Wait Too Long To Train Our Leaders by Jack Zenger

[ii] Bassett, P. Past President of the National Association of Independent Schools. From the Bassett Blog: Insights from the College Front Note: This link is no longer active. A PDF version is available.

[iii] Casner - Lotto, J. Barrington, L. Wright, M. Are they Really Ready to Work? Conference Board Publication.

[iv] START Research and Development Site: The Haverford School, Haverford, PA

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