The Big Idea: Leadership tends to be defined narrowly, if we think to define it at all. But in fact, leadership, in the way it is defined most recently in research, academia, and business is broad, inclusive, and nuanced, and we have the opportunity every day to model, teach, and reinforce the development of a leadership mindset and skill set in our kids.
Whether done well or poorly, the way in which our family functions provides the first, most powerful model of leadership that our kids experience, an experience they will take with them to school, college, and into the workplace and their life. We therefore have the opportunity to be intentional about the way we model leadership, and about the way we teach and reinforce a leadership mindset and skill set in our kids.
Forward-thinking families can define and articulate the actions and behaviors of leadership in an affirmative, productive, and constructive way — and to create a family culture that provides opportunities for each family member to learn to take the lead and to be and to become their best.
The Family Organization
One intriguing way to envision the ways in which leadership shows up in the family is to consider the parallels it has with those in other organizations, such as the workplace. The similarities are striking, given that the dynamics in organizations, large and small, are based on the social, biological, and psychological sciences that govern all human actions and interactions. The levels of leadership development also dovetail nicely with the stages of child development, especially with respect to the pursuit of mastery, autonomy, and purpose.
In our primary research, we have shown that a foundational leadership framework can be used productively at home to optimize individual interactions and family dynamics. Once established, our kids’ leadership mindset and skill set develop naturally, with increasing sophistication. Kids can apply the knowledge and experiences from home to social interactions and to their work in the classroom, in college, and ultimately, in life and work.
Defining Leadership Broadly
The language of leadership that the START student leadership initiative uses with families and schools is simple and can be understood by even the youngest kids. When parents introduce and consistently use leadership language, they provide the environment, tools, and context that kids need to frame the choices they make and the actions they take on a daily basis.
We define leadership from both a small “l” leadership and Big “L” Leadership perspective.
Small “l” leadership: Leading Self
Make decisions and take actions that have
positive and productive outcomes.
Big “L” Leadership: Leading Others
Mobilize self and others in pursuit
of worthwhile goals.
Small “l” leadership is the day-to-day leadership that kids with initiative demonstrate when they take actions that have positive and productive outcomes. Over time, kids practicing small “l” leadership become effective leaders in their own lives and go on to make a difference in their families, school, and community, and eventually, in the workplace.
Examples of small “l” leadership
Preschool: Getting ready for bed without help or reminders — by brushing teeth, putting on PJs, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, picking out a book, and climbing into bed.
Elementary school: Getting ready for school on time and without reminders by getting up with an alarm, getting dressed, eating breakfast, packing lunches and backpacks.
High school: Completing school work independently, keeping track of their own things, such as a cell phone or house key, doing household chores, and assisting others when they see a need.
At all ages: Holding the door for someone; picking up trash found on the sidewalk; choosing not to cheat; helping a younger child on the playground; voting in school or civic elections.
Big “L” Leadership is the goal-directed leadership that kids demonstrate when they work with others to achieve worthwhile goals at school, home, and in their communities. It’s about understanding what needs to be done, why their participation is important, and how to mobilize themselves and others to do it.
Examples of Big “L” Leadership
Preschool: Helping the family with simple chores such as dusting tables, putting toys away, raking leaves.
Elementary school: Organizing an activity at home or school such as a food drive with classmates or a weekend activity for the family.
Middle school: Planning and organizing activities that serve others such as volunteering as student peer advisors or visiting and reading to the elderly.
High school: Engaging in a mission-driven organization as a founder, officer, or member; starting a part-time dog walking or baby-sitting business with friends.
Outcomes: Lead Well + Be Well + Do Well
Our seven years of primary research has shown that given the time, space, and 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 need.