Encouraging traits for leadership

First of all, to clarify: I am not criticizing Sheryl Sandberg or her book. I'm choosing not to read the book because I've seen so many interviews with her in the past year that I know what her message is already so reading the book would be redundant. I don't feel like she speaks to me personally, but I know that a lot of women are loving her message and that's great.

I was specifically criticizing that quote, which, out of context, was rocketing around the internet. As someone who verged on "bossy" as a little girl, I'm very thankful that my mother worked with me to turn my fierceness, determination, and strong sense of self into traits that helped me, instead of allowing me to tell others what to do and barrel through situations without regard for others or for how I was being perceived.

I'm also thankful that she didn't allow others to dismiss me by calling me "bossy." And that she didn't encourage me to push others around by calling that "leadership skills."

It is my hope that we can see the excellent traits our kids have and nurture them, while looking at negative behaviors separately. Being determined is a trait. Telling others what to do is a behavior. There is no reason to label someone for their behaviors. For one thing, it makes the labeler small. For another thing, behavior changes so the label won't make any sense.

But there is a reason to work with our kids on behaviors that won't help them. Teaching kids not to push others around is not denying their positive traits, but it is helping them channel those traits into behaviors that increase their power and expand the pie for everyone. We can create strong, forceful, aggressive, kids (girls and boys both) who know how to work with other people, who inspire because their boldness includes others, and who others love to be led by because of their strength.

At the same time, "shy" kids can learn leadership skills, too. The kids who feel pushed and afraid when other kids overwhelm them, who are sensitive and cautious, they can be great leaders, too. If we convince ourselves or others that it's necessary to be bold and forceful to be a leader, we're cutting off possibilities for some of our kids and cheating ourselves out of some strong leaders.

The culture of communication is a whole different topic. I went to a women's college for a lot of reasons, one of which was that I didn't want anyone to think I could be minimized. I don't know what the answer is to creating an entire co-ed culture that gives value to all voices and styles. That's why I'm focusing on teaching my individual kids to be leaders, which involves listening to all voices and being specifically inclusive as a technique for discovery and rigor. (If you create an echo chamber, you immediately lower the bar for whatever you're doing.)

Thoughts? What are you doing to foster your kids' strong traits and teach them leadership skills?

17 thoughts on “Encouraging traits for leadership”

  1. Ooh, this is one I think about a lot since my daughter is very much like me. I was raised in a traditional Asian culture which placed a lot of value on obedience, respect for adults, being non-disruptive and sacrificing what you what for the good of other people. Good things in small doses, maybe, but for an introvert who’s not a “go-getter”, I ended up becoming more of a follower than a leader.I’m working to unlearn a lot of that stuff now, and teach my daughter how to stand up for herself and be more of a risk taker.
    For now it’s as simple as working with her to express herself when she doesn’t like/want something – politely but to stick to her preference. Of course, i also have to learn to accept that when it’s directed at me – work in progress.
    I think just that one small thing will help her (I hope) – that it’s ok to express yourself, even with people in authority. That’s something I was never encouraged to do, or was too comfortable with.

  2. I am trying to convey, in my daily interactions with her, that my 6 y.o. daughter has good ideas. And that she can solve problems. I hope that also translates into the idea that “if your idea doesn’t work out, you will be OK because you are a problem-solver and you’ll figure out what plan B needs to be, and do that.” For me, I got a ton of reinforcement as a child for being smart but almost no guidance on what to do when my action/plan/suggestion bombed… I had a pretty strong fear of failure, and strong perfectionism. Only as a young adult did I start to use and identify with the data about me that I could solve problems (that I inadvertently created i.e. failures)– so I didn’t need to fear failing. I’d fail, and it would still be OK because I had skills to make it OK.It’s broader than leadership, but in order to be a leader, I think you have to be comfortable putting your ideas out there without a guarantee that they’ll always “succeed.”

  3. I don’t have a real comment, but wanted to say Moxie, that what you’re asking is so important. I am not convinced both my kids need to be leaders, but I sure am hoping they both turn out to be adults who know how to decide what to do, and know better than to believe that the loudest voice is the one who knows.Also important is being okay with our kids having some negative bits and pieces. This of course requires us to be okay with having some negative bits and pieces ourselves.
    That’s what you made me think about.

  4. a sideline question that I think about: do we need to prepare everyone to be leaders? I need to try to prepare our children to lead when necessary. Likewise, when necessary to follow when the ideas are right and true and speak to them–to NOT just follow when the “leader” has bad ideas or is loud, just because it is the path of least resistance.

  5. I think leadership skills are fundamental. That doesn’t mean you need to BE a leader, but leadership capability will be useful in many ways for people not leading. Plus knowing and being able to recognize these skills helps to make clear who else is a good leader worth following, and who is not.Skills I think we work on that are ‘leadership skills’:
    Collaborative problem solving – breaking the problem down into its component parts, understanding whose problem really belongs to whom, creative thinking for solutions, evaluation of solutions for priority and effectiveness, and iterative trials of solutions, plus tuning.
    Empathy. Just plain empathy is a huge part of leadership.
    Communication/presentation/style – having a clear way of getting your point across that doesn’t come out as mean, rude, bratty, pushy, arrogant, defensive, whiny, etc. Learning to communicate clearly is a leadership skill. It’s also useful everywhere else. Using a whiney voice to get your way, or hitting to get your way, not okay communication.
    Decisiveness – practice making decisions enough to know when it is time to make one, and to not be afraid of doing so. Drives me nuts when my kids want me to make their decisions for them (though I understand that the clinical anxiety is a major player there).
    Forgiveness/Allowance of Failure – not carrying past mistakes, not holding grudges, not beating yourself up or tearing yourself down, not berating others for past offenses, not bring up old issues that are not currently relevant, clearing your emotional decks. Leaders will notice and troubleshoot when a mistake is a pattern, but forgive and allow for learning when a mistake is a first. Treating errors as learning is powerful in leadership. You don’t have to be a leader to benefit from it.
    We used to do ‘leader days’ when the kids were younger, where the kid made the collective decisions for everyone whenever there was a dispute. It required that they not be selfish, and consider the team – sometimes it meant that instead of getting to do something themselves, they chose someone else to get to do it. Much of the time, they treated it as a chance to do the thing they didn’t get to do otherwise, though. Because they were little, that was a tough one.

  6. I am sure that there will be lots of comments with good ideas on how to teach kids to lead, but I would love it if you could give us some practical examples of how you do this with your kids.

  7. Wow, my head is spinning. I think what Sheryl Sandberg meant, although it comes out completely wrong, is that we need to be careful about what we say to boys and girls, and try not to direct them into old gender stereotypes. I have a 10 month old so I havn’t thought that much about teaching leadership. But, addressing @ramy, we do not want everyone to be leaders everywhere, but they should be a leader in their own lives.I was not taught much about being a leader, when I was at home, and never desired to be one. When I was about 30, I found myself managing a worksite and I became very successful at it. I always attributed it to the fact that I was able to relate to both sides of a situation and then effectively explain to each side, why we needed to do something to achieve the mutual goals.

  8. Wait…I totally need some ideas on how to channel this “leader” energy into productive behavior- because right now we’ve got an almost 5yo Mr.Bossypants. He definitely directs play and can be quite determined. I don’t want to squash that part of his personality, but I also don’t want it to become a hurdle.

  9. Mathematically, wanting your children to be leaders is going to have at least a 50% failure rate. I like Hedra’s description of qualities she wants her children to have, but while those are good qualities in a leader, they’re also good qualities in anyone.I feel as though “leadership” is the new “passion.”

  10. Slim, exactly my point. The primary qualities of a good leader are also the primary qualities of a good team member. The difference being passion and drive/persistence. Persistence is a good habit of mind, and passion is something that can have discipline developed to manage, but can’t really be ‘taught’ as a skill separately. Passion just is. So leadership is discipline, communication, persistence, collaboration, empathy, etc., toward the passion’s goal. Where just being a good team member is being willing to support someone else’s passion with your own discipline, empathy, communication, etc..I’m a good example. All of these traits are things that my mom worked on in me/us as kids, and I had a lovely professional career for a long time as Not A Leader. Then I lit on fire over something, and suddenly ended up a leader. Never wanted it, until I had a reason to want it, and then had a lot of the skills already in place.

  11. @JudyB, at that age, probably the best opening is to ask him to think about what the other child wants to do, and find ways to incorporate their play goals with his play goals, so they all get to contribute. They’ve got limited ability to understand what’s going on in the other kid’s head at that age, so it is just early stages. Still, the ‘you have a problem you’re solving here, and the other kid has a problem they want to solve, can we find a way to play that solves both at the same time, instead of just one?’ approach has worked for us even earlier than that. The idea that there is more than one problem in any scenario (each party has a need to be met) is eye opening for many people, even adults. Beyond that, the idea of finding a way to solve BOTH problems rather than just one or the other, also a surprising insight for many (especially at this age, and I find especially in USian boy culture, which tends to tilt either-or rather than both-and).

  12. @Moxie, This…THIS”At the same time, “shy” kids can learn leadership skills, too. The kids who feel pushed and afraid when other kids overwhelm them, who are sensitive and cautious, they can be great leaders, too. If we convince ourselves or others that it’s necessary to be bold and forceful to be a leader, we’re cutting off possibilities for some of our kids and cheating ourselves out of some strong leaders.”
    Thank you for saying that. And I totally agree (being a ‘shy’ and sensitive leader myself). I am saving this to say to my sensitive, ‘project managing’ little guy. The other day DS told me he didn’t want to say hi to some visitors ‘because he was shy’. We don’t tell him he’s shy, but a lot of people will say it because he takes more time for him to warm up than your average kid. I’m still reeling a bit from him saying it (to which I said back ‘Well, you’re FEELING shy right now, and that’s OK, but you may not feel shy later and you can come and say hi then). Argh!
    @hedra, Love your list of qualities.
    @Slim, I think there are certain situations in everyone’s life where they have to assume a leadership role. Having the qualities @hedra describes certainly help in those situations, as well as, as you mention, in regular life.

  13. An acquaintance once corrected her daughter’s behavior by calling out “Be a leader!” and I didn’t laugh, but you can bet I wanted to. So that’s what got me thinking about our culture’s current fixation on being a leader and leadership skills and all. To me, saying “I want my kid to be a leader” is like saying “I want my kid to be popular.” Focusing on the result rather than the process is how I roll, so I work on getting my kids to think about how to be someone other people will want to work with (regardless of who’s in charge) or how to be a good friend (rather than how to accumulate a lot of them).Even if you have skills and passion, your interests may make you someone who doesn’t want to do the things that people in charge have to do, or they may lie in an area that doesn’t necessarily have leaders. The notion that being a leader represents a greater success than opting out is bullshit.

  14. Yeah, I think I’m just looking towards outcomes that are less measurable and come further down the pike. A life well-lived can take a lot of forms.

  15. Absolutely. My measures of success are not culture-norm. (ran into that at the intake for Asperger’s assessment, where when asked what I wanted for my kids, my response was I wanted them to be successful. I got a very ‘well, lady, we are NOT going to be turning your kids into little mainstream round pegs!’ warning in response. Uh. No, that’s not what I mean by success! Outcomes for me are way more subtle and complex than that, way more ‘attune the desire to the process to the experience of feeling successful’ but not ‘making six figures, having 1.8 kids, and looking mainstream media pretty’… but how to ‘splain??)

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