Is Every Kid Supposed To Be a Leader?

There I stood in front of a crowd of one thousand students and faculty members, at a university in the Midwest. One instructor stood up with a question I get almost everywhere I go, because I teach leadership to students. The person asking usually has an answer already—they just want to hear how I’m going to respond to this question…

“Is everyone a leader?”

The answer of course is yes and no. (How’s that for a politically correct answer?) It all depends on how you define the word “leader.” If you define it in the traditional fashion—that a leader is someone with a position, in charge of a group of people in an organization—then, the answer is no. Not everyone and certainly not every student is gifted to become the president, CEO or key leader of an organization. Most never occupy a top spot in a flow chart. Perhaps only ten percent of the population will. For the sake of discussion, we’ll call these people “Leaders” with a capital “L.”

If leadership means possessing a gift to organize groups of people to accomplish a task, then it’s exclusive and obviously not for everyone. In fact, we will frustrate students by telling them they are “Leaders”—only to disappointment them with a lofty ideal they’ll never attain. We create a false expectation. Most of the arguments surrounding this question boil down to contrasting definitions.

If we define leadership in a different manner, however, it opens up an entirely new perspective for students. What if leadership was more about people pursuing a “calling” in their life; a calling with which they will influence others in its fulfillment? What if it had more to do with finding an area of strength—and in using that strength, they’ll naturally influence others in a positive way?

It seems to me, every one of us possesses some strength or gift that enables us to master something and to influence others in a healthy way. Certainly, mankind has distorted this idea. History is full of leaders who tried to dominate others by force, such as Nero, Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein. But we can’t let counterfeits of good leadership convince us that leadership should be avoided. In fact, if there is a counterfeit, it means there is something genuine that is valuable. I believe leadership is about serving others in the area of our giftedness. When kids do, they naturally ripple with influence. They don’t even have to try to “lead” others. As kids mature, we are to help them naturally uncover their strengths, so they can serve people and influence them in a positive way. Students may not even have a position at the top of a flow chart, but they lead.

Because this is a larger segment of the population, it might be helpful to call these people “leaders” with a lower case “l.” They are “leaders”, not “Leaders.” They’re everywhere, and we must prepare them to influence their world. This is why I choose to define leadership in this way:

Leadership is using my influence for a worthwhile cause.

Two Kinds of Leaders

Let me say it another way. These two kinds of leaders (“Leaders” and “leaders”) can be defined as HABITUAL leaders and SITUATIONAL leaders. “Habitual leaders” are the natural ones, who tend to be good at leading whatever group they are in. They feel natural taking charge and running point on just about any project. They lead out of habit. “Situational leaders” are those people who make up the majority of the population. Most of them don’t even feel like leaders—until they find the right situation that fits their passions and their strengths. Once they are in the area of their strength, they come alive and become the right one to lead in that particular situation. This is why a central goal for parents and mentors ought to be to help students find their “situation.” This situation is likely where a person will fulfill their purpose and leverage their best influence.

Two Goals for Healthy Leaders

Whether your student is a “habitual” leader or a “situational” leader, the next discovery we must help them make is what every healthy leader is about. I believe effective, lasting leaders earn their right to influence others because they:

  1. Solve problems
  2. Serve people

That’s it. The fastest way to earn a position of leadership is to solve problems and serve people. When kids do, others naturally follow them. They have roles of influence. This is what we need to cultivate in our kids today. We don’t need more bosses or politicians. We don’t need more fame hungry athletes or celebrities. What we need are emerging adults who know how to solve problems because they serve a greater cause beyond themselves. In 2000, the Kellogg Foundation published a report on the status of leadership on university campuses in North America. The report included both state and private schools, and was compiled by Dr. Helen and Dr. Alexander Astin, from UCLA. Their conclusions were intriguing. Let me summarize a few of them here:

  1. Every student has the potential to be a leader.
  2. Leadership cannot be separated from values.
  3. Leadership skills must be taught.
  4. In today’s world, every student will need leadership skills.

So, let’s embrace it. Let’s help kids learn to lead and influence in a manner appropriate with their giftedness, and not excuse themselves because they won’t ever be Mother Teresa, or Dr. King or Bill Gates. Leadership is a calling on every one of us, to some degree. It’s about becoming the person we are gifted to be. It is less about position and more about disposition. It is not so much about superiority but about service—serving in the area of our strengths.

When we define it this way, it puts the cookies on the bottom shelf. Every child can do it.

For Discussion:

  1. How do you define leadership? Do you believe every student has some influence to leverage?
  2. How do you foster an environment that encourages students to think and act like leaders?

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Is Every Kid Supposed To Be a Leader?