What Do Kids Picture When You Ask Them to Draw a Leader?

A few weeks ago, Fast Company magazine published a piece where they asked young children to draw a picture of a “leader.” They did not specify what that meant; the kids could come up with whatever person or characteristics they imagined that leaders embody, and then draw it with a crayon or marker.

You can probably guess that kids had definite ideas in their heads.

What the magazine wondered, however, is what I often wonder: What is the picture of leadership we offer to our young people today? Do they look around them at leaders in the news—on Wall Street, in Washington D.C. or in schools—and get the wrong picture? Do they assume that leadership is all about:

  1. Power
  2. Wealth
  3. Prestige or fame
  4. Fancy titles

I’ve got some revealing news for you.

What the Kids Drew

My friend Steve Moore, sent me the article which included the drawings. It was inspired by a New York Times piece that discovered executives usually draw a “man” when asked to draw a picture of a leader. Fast Company wondered when that bias begins in humans. So, they decided to ask young children to “draw a leader.”

While they only asked ten elementary school students to draw pictures, there was a pattern as to what they imagined. The top three drawings the kids created were:

1. Some drew a picture of themselves.

The most drawn picture the students created was one of themselves. These kids clearly have high self-esteem and view themselves as someone in charge, who can help others get to a goal. This is indicative of children over the last thirty years, due to the fact that parents and educators have placed such a high value on children and their self-esteem. Interestingly, those who drew themselves did so because they saw themselves as able to actually help others reach a goal.

2. Some drew a picture of a doctor.

Another popular drawing was a doctor. The students see similarities between a leader and a doctor: both serve others and both help others get better. Interestingly, it wasn’t a picture of someone who was large and in charge; loud and boisterous. It was a picture of a person who is good and who is helping someone else. Further, some kids said it’s someone who does check ups. Not a bad image of either role.

3. Some drew a picture of their mother or a teacher.

Another cluster of students drew a picture of their mom or a teacher. There was clearly the sense that either males or females can be leaders; the gender doesn’t matter. Leaders are seen as “parents” or “teachers” because they teach people and they feed people. They make sure kids have what they need and they know what to do with problems. Once again, not a bad picture of what leaders should be about.

What do these perspectives have in common?

It struck me when I surveyed the pictures and read the comments that these young students have a fairly clear and accurate picture of what good leaders are all about:

  1. In their view leaders help and serve others.
  2. In their view leaders make sure people have what they need.
  3. In their view leaders know what to do when there’s a problem.

So, let me ask you a question. If your students drew a picture of what they think of when they think of a leader—would they have the same picture? What would they draw? What kind of visual aid have you given them with your words and your life?

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What Do Kids Picture When You Ask Them to Draw a Leader?