Instilling Leadership Skills in Our Children
Updated: May 1
A few years ago, I was invited to attend a car racing competition for 7-graders arranged by a woodworking school in Chicago, Illinois. Students had spent four months designing and building their cars to be raced at the end of the semester. The cars participated in multiple racing tracks where first, second and third place winners were declared.
As the race went on, it was evident some cars had a better design, were more stable and maintained the race course. While others flipped, detoured, or simply lost momentum in the middle of the track. I took interest in the behavior of children. I watched their reaction to the competition, and their interactions with their colleagues. For the most part, children were in high spirits supporting one another. But a few exhibited troubling character signs.
In particular, I was observing the behavior of two close girlfriends participating in the competition. I knew of their friendship prior to the competition due to my relationship with their parents.
By the end of the race, one of the friends won the competition. Her car was fast and steady throughout the race. Seeing this, her friend started getting agitated, then her feelings escalated to anger. She picked up her own car and stormed out of the competition hall without a word to her friend who won! Her parents, feeling a little bad about their child’s behavior, went to congratulate the mother of the winning girl. They made an excuse for their daughter’s behavior stating her behavior stems from her disappointment in the performance of the car she built.
I was stunned and puzzled all at once. These were two very close friends who spent hours of play time together. It got me thinking of early leadership teachings. What makes some children support one another while others undermine one another? What makes some express genuine happiness for the success of their mates, while others are consumed with envy?
Watching the 2020 Summer Olympics (played in year 2021) brought back memories of the robotic car racing competition. I observed how athletes, as young as 11 years old, supported and cheered for their counterparts. These athletes were rivalries from different countries, but it did not seem to matter. There was an atmosphere of genuine admiration and overall appreciation for the hard work every athlete brought into the games despite the peculiar challenges of the 125th Olympics. Through their sportsmanship/sportswomanship, athletes demonstrated authentic leadership skills.
The billion-dollar question is: how can we develop leadership skills in our children early on so they grow to become the best versions of themselves?
Developing leadership skills require time and intentional effort. Like a muscle, the more you work on it, the stronger it gets. But we need to start the work early to train the brain to distinguish good behavior from bad. To do this right, the journey must begin with our children.
Let’s look at the early games we play with our children. Take for instance, the game of “musical chairs”. Most of us have played it sometime during our childhood. The game involves placing chairs in a circle facing outwards; music is played and children are instructed to go around the chairs then sit on a chair as soon as the music stops. The game is played in multiple rounds. Typically, round 1 would have matching number of children and chairs, then a chair is removed at the end of each round, the child without a chair at the end of the round is eliminated. The game continues until all are eliminated but one child who must fight to sit on the last remaining chair!
The way this game is played teaches children the “winner-looser” mentality. In order for the child to be declared a winner, others must loose. There is no team spirit in this game, the focus is on me only against everyone else.
I hear the same game is played by children in Japan, albeit with different instructions. The ground rules remain the same; chairs are provided, a chair is taken away at the end of each round, and music is played. But the children are told if one of them remains without a chair to sit on when the music stops then they all lose the game.
Given these instructions, children behave differently. They hold each other’s hands and share the chairs. They sit on top of one another to ensure no one is left standing at the end of the round. Ten children share nine chairs. Then they share eight chairs, then seven chairs and so on until it is no longer feasible to share the chairs. These instructions teach children the importance of wining as a team. No one child can win by themselves, they need to support one another so they can all be declared winners. It is the same game, but with different teachings.
We need to revise the rules of such games. We need to look for opportunities to instill leadership behavior in our children early on. We need to teach them they cannot succeed alone. They need to know the importance of bringing people into their vision for the future. They need to understand that they are stronger when they have the support of others and when they support others. They need to believe in others, and to welcome diverse skills and viewpoints.
Only then can we ensure we raise future leaders.