Much of our early experience in developing leadership skills takes place in school.
For me, grade school leadership was about obedience to authority: The kids most able to follow rules unquestioningly were given “management responsibility” like leading the line to the lunch room, safety patrol crossing guard, the dreaded room monitor, and of course, delivering messages from the classroom to the Principal’s office. (I went to school before wired classrooms.)
Fast forward to your high school years and notice how the game changed dramatically. High school becomes an incubator for many forms of leadership. If you ask among your circle of friends you will find that a large percentage of people who took on leadership roles in high school continue to take on leadership roles in adulthood.
When considering leadership among adolescents, it is easy to focus on the protoypic captain of the sport team. But in many respects these kids were still following the rules of elementary school. They were being selected as exemplary performers. But some kids forged their own leadership path. Do you remember the name of the kid who directed the school play? Or the one who organized the fund-raising dance-a-thon? How about the editors of the yearbook or school newspaper? The student council president who organized a restructuring of campus rules? The kid who created the bike repair business? The community service club that started a reading program for underserved youth?
Somewhere in this period of adolescence, some of us learned to coordinate, to orchestrate, and to sell people a vision or outcome that is bigger than any individual can do alone. We begin to understand concepts of communication, collaboration and influencing others. What inspires this sudden burst of entrepreneurship?
The research group at The Search Institute, a not-for-profit organization that has spent the last 50 years researching and promoting better ways for communities to raise healthy youth and adolescents, has identified a list of 40 Developmental Assets instrumental in the formation of successful, healthy adolescents. Conditions supporting success include family support, caring neighborhood and school climate, a personal value of service to others, strong boundaries and expectations, the opportunity to learn and practice creative activities, a desire to achieve, social competencies, and factors supporting both a sense of purpose and a positive view of personal future.
While our data from conducting interviews with business leaders for The 8 Dimensions of Leadership is anecdotal, we found that leaders had a sense of themselves as leaders relatively early in life. Many had stories that resonate strongly with the Search Institute’s concepts of desire to achieve, awareness of a sense of purpose, and a positive view of the future. While the leaders we interviewed rarely landed in the field or profession they had imagined early in life, the desire to achieve created a focus and determination to carry them through the inevitable challenges.
I am interested in hearing your observations about leaders in their youth.