by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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When I entered the family room, I was shocked to find my youngest daughter lying on the ground covering her face with both hands. Her big sister was sitting on the couch yelling out, “Berrrrrrrrrr…nier…. Berrrrrrrr…nier….. Berrrrrrr…….nier, YOU STINK!” I asked what was wrong, to which I was told they were playing hockey and the younger one had broken her nose and lost her teeth (luckily just pretending). The older one was being a Predators fan and yelling at the other team’s goalie (if you have seen the Predators play you have heard the whole crowd yelling this out to the opposing goalie - she was copying them when they were yelling at the Ducks goalie Bernier). The younger one explained to me that she was fine and was going to keep playing because she was tough and that is what hockey players do. I realized quickly that maybe we had been watching a little too much of the hockey playoffs.
As I thought more about the situation, it came to mind how much kids are captured by the examples they see in real life and on TV. It is amazing how impressionable kids are. It is amazing how moved they are by the examples they see. They want to be like the people they look up to. They want to follow in the footsteps of people they see as successful. A perfect example is the 80’s Gatorade commercial campaign that centered on the phrase: “Be Like Mike” that left thousands of kids wanting to dunk basketballs just like Michael Jordan. Advertisers use this concept of modeling and examples to sell everything to kids. If kids are so impressionable and apt to following the examples they see, then why aren’t we using this concept of modeling more when teaching them leadership?
The truth is that we are showing them examples of leadership; we just aren’t consciously doing it. Too often, leadership is a concept that we don’t specifically teach to kids, but they still pick up the concept of leadership by watching ‘leaders’ around them. They pick up leadership from the examples set by teachers, coaches, parents, and older kids. They watch these people lead and then pick up skills, techniques, and approaches to use in their own lives. They pick up the good and the bad when it comes to leadership.
How do we know this happens? First of all, we know kids are like sponges, soaking up everything around them. Secondly, we know that leaders of all ages are heavily influenced by the leaders that come before them. As adult employees we are watching how leaders in our company are leading us on a daily basis. We see examples of things we would do if we were the leader and examples of things we would not do. Every day is an opportunity to hone our understanding of leadership through the people around us. When we get a chance to lead a team of our fellow employees or even lead a large division, we now have a bank of knowledge through our experiential learning that we can use in our leadership efforts.
This concept of building the bank of knowledge through experiences is not any different for kids. In fact, it is even more prevalent for kids since they are apt to soak up what is happening around them as they are figuring out who they are. Knowing the impact of leaders on these kids it is incredibly important that we provide good examples of leadership. It is important that we are showcasing the best of leadership traits, skills, and approaches. When they are surrounded by bad examples of leadership, then kids are apt to continue a trend of poor leadership decisions. Take for example, the issues with hazing on high school and college athletic teams. It is a rampant problem that seems to continue on unfazed by legislation and the efforts of administrators. The reason why it continues is that new athletes to the team see older athletes who are leaders on the team leading these hazing actions. These new players tell themselves that they just have to get through the hazing and someday they will be on the other side and can lead the hazing. The chain of hazing is never broken because the new players are seeing the example of this leadership behavior and want to continue it when they become a leader.
When it comes to teaching leadership to kids, the use of examples of effective leadership can be incredibly impactful. The more that we can show good leadership to these kids and the more examples from the real world that we can provide to them, the greater the chance they will have to pick up effective leadership traits, skills, and approaches. So the key is to locate leadership examples that fit their lives. Whether it is stories of other kids who are similar to them, or stories of world renowned leaders, the key is to bombard kids with as many examples as possible.
Through just watching a handful of hockey games my own kids had picked up some good ideas about hockey (being tough and playing through injuries) and some bad ideas about hockey (yelling at the opposing goalie). Knowing the impact that a small sample of hockey had on my kids, I can only imagine the impact on our kids if we were able to continue to flood them with positive, effective leadership examples. We just may be able to break the bad chains of leadership (e.g., hazing, bullying) and build the next wave of leaders who can make a difference in the world.