We have been concerned with teaching leadership to adults and organizations for many years. Maybe if we spend more time teaching leadership to children, we could spend less time teaching it to adults.
I’ve always been struck by students who exceed expectations and go the extra mile, both in quality and accomplishments. They all have a certain tenacity, they all know what it means to move their dreams ahead and, in that context, they all realize that little steps matter. They know that to move an agenda forward they must evaluate where they need to go and the steps that need to be taken. In the end, they know leadership isn’t some charismatic rallying cry, it’s the simple act of getting things done.
This is also true for successful adults. They too understand that leadership requires the capacity to take micro-steps to move things forward.
So what are the leadership skills that students can learn? All to often we impose on students a grandiose notion of leadership that emerges from national politics, movies, or sports. The first thing we need to do is make it clear to young people that leadership doesn’t need to be necessarily spelled with an italicized, capital ‘L‘. It doesn’t need to be a function of their personality, background, race, religion, or anything else. It is a function of their ability to know how to get something done. It is a function of focus and execution. This can be taught.
The principles of leadership, the principle of being proactive and pragmatic, the principles of knowing how to move your agenda and achieve your goal isn’t hidden in mystery. It is simply a series of learned skills.
Last year I talked to a youngster about how he could get into a top-notch college.
He said to me, “Even if I have the grades, how can I afford it? The competition is huge and the tuition is too much.”
Our schools need to teach him and all students how to be entrepreneurial in this competitive environment. The challenge for this young man was to make sure his resume was a bit unusual and stood out. The challenge was to take on some summer responsibilities that showed his commitment to community and outreach. The challenge was to begin to ask around and find out who were the right people that could write recommendations or find someone how at least knew someone. The challenge was to make him aware that no matter where you are there is a network world of two or three degrees of separation.
By using, exploring, and connecting to different networks students can mobilize resources and opportunities that would greatly level the field and enhance the probability of success. We need to begin to teach young people the skills of mobilization, how to get people on their side, how to gain support of others, the skills of momentum, and how to go the distance.
We need to make sure that all young people have exposure to the proactive skills that leaders need so they can practice execute and achieve their dreams. When we study such leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, and President Barack Obama, we need to focus not simply on their vision, but on their nuts-and-bolts skills they had to put in place to get where they are. We have to create high school programs that will give youngsters real, executable leadership skills.
For many, schools sports is the only arena in which leadership is taught since it teaches communication, team work, persistence, and collaboration. But, in truth how many people engage in sports? Isn’t it as exclusionary as it is inclusive? We need to create leadership programs in our schools that will stand on their own and be open to everyone. Programs with their own unique material that focuses on skills and gives students an opportunity to learn from material, exercises, and shared experiences.
In each school we need to create a leadership academy that works with students to give them the skills execution and monitors their development. In a world where excellence only gets you in the door, training students in leadership skills is no longer a quaint little exercise, it’s a necessity. Just as we invest in giving high potentials leadership training in the corporate world, we should give all our young high potentials the same training.