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Preparing Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Leading by Influence

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Traditional top down leadership (sometimes called bossing people around) works best in (and perpetuates) a static economy. The rapidly changing economic forces of the 21st century along with the increasingly collaborative nature of 21st century work environments are not well suited for this kind of leadership style. Instead, your kid will need to be familiar with and (ideally) practiced in a leadership style that influences employees or coworkers by reasoning, persuasion, collaboration and modeling rather than telling them what to do. This is also known as transformational leadership, participative management and team leadership.

There are a number of component skills that enable people to lead by influence. Here is a review of some of these core competencies. After a review of these components, there is a list of some opportunities you can provide that will allow your kid to practice leadership within the family context. (Leaders also, of course, draw upon other 21st Century skills that have been the focus of other columns including problem solving , initiative, communication skills, work ethic, patience, appreciation for dissenting opinions, decision making, critical analysis, saving grace and project management.)

Lead. Leaders take responsibility for the tasks at hand. They are willing to step up and offer to take charge of a project or activity. They are willing to put themselves on the line for the sake of the task (and, often, for the opportunity to make something happen). Talk with your kid about the importance of leaders. Point out the different skills and techniques that make an effective leader. Find ways to mention signs of leadership you have noticed in them. Point out instances of leadership in the world around them. Finally, put your kid in charge of something–and this doesn’t mean put them in charge of cleaning their room. (You can find some suggestions in the Leadership Opportunities section below.) Be clear that you expect them to practice their leadership skills. Include yourself on the team. This gives your kid experience and it gives you a chance to mentor them as they lead.

  1. Good leaders inspire group members to follow them. They lead by example. If your kid wants people to work hard, they need to work hard. If they want people to be enthusiastic, they need to be enthusiastic.   Talk to your kid about being a role model. Require them to lead by example. (And if they don’t, they can complete the task by themselves!)
  2. Effective leaders know how and when to encourage others. They use this skill to get folks moving, maintain interest and enthusiasm and to keep at it until the job is done. Your kid will need to know how to provide an encouraging word (“Good job”), give positive feedback (“That’s looking really good”), infuse energy and optimism into the process when spirits are lagging (“Come on. It’s getting there.”) and build people up when they run into problems (“You can get it.”). Have your kid practice offering spontaneous compliment on others skills or accomplishments they show in everyday situations. “Hey sis, congratulations on that A in science.” And the most important way to encourage people? Gratitude. “Thanks Dad.” At the end of the day, have them identify 3 ways they have encouraged others. How many compliments have they provided? How much gratitude have they expressed?

Validate. Effective leaders also make sure each of the team members feels valued. Your kid will need to be able to identify a team member’s particular strengths (“You are really good at . . .”) and recognize their unique contribution to the team (“I’m glad we had you on the team, otherwise . . .”). They will need to know how to acknowledge others’ contributions (“And Jack put this part together.”). Consider having a family validation time (at dinner, while driving in the car, etc.). Everyone is required to trade validations. Help them learn how to give specific feedback about meaningful contributions. “You’re really good at . . .” “I never realized how well you . . .” “This family wouldn’t be the same without your . . .” “I think your personal strength is . . .”

  1. Part of leadership is in identifying tasks worth completing. Leaders also play a role in keeping the team on track while working toward the group goal. Make your kid responsible for establishing the goal for a family activity. Put them in charge of seeing that the task gets done (see Leadership Opportunities below). Help them recognize when team members need some guidance. Have them practice giving it. “Why don’t you see if you can give your brother some ideas about how he might be able to do that?” (I know, I know. Formula for the outbreak of war. The point is for them to practice guiding without insulting. It’s worth a shot.)
  2. Leaders must be able to give direct instructions. Giving instructions results in each team member knowing their individual responsibilities within a larger project. This not only helps increase the likely success of the project but also provides a means of holding each group member accountable for their part. Have your kid practice assigning tasks in family projects. Have them be responsible for reading the directions in a structured task (e.g., putting something together, building something, making a recipe, etc.). You can even set up some games where one person provides directions. (See suggestions in the Leadership Opportunities section below.)
  3. The success of a project increases dramatically when team members are aware of the end goal as well as having an area of personal responsibility. It is a means of accountability, of having a meaningful way to contribute to the team and a source of potential creativity and innovation. For your kid to be an effective leader, they will need to recognize the importance of having everyone know what the team is working toward. “OK, here’s what we want to end up with.” They will also need to learn how to give team members the opportunity to be in charge of their own part of the project. “Sis, you take this. Dad you take this. Mom, this is yours. I’ve got this part.” Finally, they need to know about the importance of asking for feedback about ideas or concerns that might improve the success of the task. “Anyone have any ideas that might make this work better?”
  4. Leaders have to critically evaluate ideas and actions in terms of the ultimate goals of a project. Your kid will need to master the subtle skill of offering correction or criticism without undermining motivation and confidence. (You know; like you do as a parent. “HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?!”) Have your kid give critical feedback to you about something you have done. Help them see how saying it one way (“You SUCK”) results in a different reaction (i.e., punishment) than when the same information is conveyed another way (“That could use a little more work, I think.”). Require them to give feedback about something to a sibling without getting a reaction. (The mirror of this exercise is that the follower has to learn to take criticism and corrective feedback.) And, as always, switch off among the kids.

Share credit. Leaders must learn to give credit for success to the team. Have your kid guide a team to success without taking credit. Have them work with a sibling, friend, etc. and then have them take no responsibility while talking about the contributions of their team mates. This is a really difficult skill unless you have one of those mythical biologically nice and humble kids.

Follow. Leaders have to know about following. It gives them a perspective to draw on when they are trying to lead. When a sibling is in charge, require the other kids have to be good followers. (And, punishment will follow if they don’t appropriately fulfill their role.) This video showed up on the internet (went viral, as they say) and then a well-regarded entrepreneur (Derek Sivers) used it as an example of leadership, and the importance of the first follower.   Hilariously informative.

Let it be. Effective leaders (and parents) come to learn that they don’t have to actively lead all the time. Sometimes, it is important to do nothing (especially if the leader has done a good job of empowering team members). Sometimes this will happen regardless of what a leader does. However, your kid will still need to know how to set people in motion and let them go. This is a particularly tricky skill in that too much letting go and the project isn’t completed or it veers off course; too little letting go (sometimes called micromanagement) and personal responsibility and ownership by team members is undermined. Have your kid refrain from providing any direction to team members during a group task to see what happens. Talk afterwards about what they noticed.

Leadership Opportunities. One way to help your kid develop better leadership abilities is to have them practice being in charge of group tasks. Here are some suggested activities for them to practice leadership (and followership). In all these instances, the leader will have the information or directions and will lead the others through the task. Always start with reviewing the components of leading by example.

  • Making a recipe. Have your kid be responsible for translating a recipe into a finished dish. They are to lead the family team through the preparation and cooking process.
  • Leading the blind. Blind fold a family member. Rearrange the furniture in the family room. Have your kid direct them through the maze. Laugh heartily when they hit their shin and fall to the ground. Administer first aid. Talk about why the leader has just undermined his own leadership position (i.e., trust). Have at a serious round. Switch roles.
  • Orienteering. Hide something in the backyard (or, if you’re ambitious, in the woods). Using a compass, construct a set of directions that require the leader to take the team zig zagging from one point to another ending at the hidden spot. (See here for more on this activity.)
  • Family tasks (e.g., yard work, seasonal cleaning, organizing holiday meals, etc.). Put your kid in charge. Require them to use their leadership skills.
  • Family outings (e.g., picnics, day hikes, camping trips, etc.). Have your kid be in charge of a family outing.
  • Multiplayer online video games. Believe it or not, playing multiplayer, team oriented video games can develop leadership skills. Observe them while playing. Require them to use POSITIVE leadership skills (rather than the usual cussing, insults and put downs)
  • Building or making something requiring instructions. When you purchase new furniture that has to be assembled, put your kid in charge. Be the worker bee while you and your kid put something together (e.g., Lego, K’NEX), plastic model kits or sewing from a pattern.
  • Criticism with love. Have your kids trade off critiquing something their sibling has done (not something about them). Then, have the sibling evaluate how well they were critiqued (i.e., how they felt, sensitivity, specific, balanced, uplifting rather than demotivating, etc.). Trade off.

Obvious leadership opportunities can be hard to come by. Working on this at home can really make a difference in preparing your kid when an opportunity presents itself. Be sure to use these same elements yourself in teaching your kid about leadership. It is going to be difficult for them and they can get frustrated and demoralized by having to lead a bunch of yahoos (yet another life lesson.)

The book, Everyday Leadership: Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success (A guidebook for teens) by Miriam G. MacGregor, is a great resource written for teens.  There is also has a companion book with activities.