If you’ve ever observed a group of children playing and socialising, it will have become obvious to you fairly rapidly which individuals hold sway over the direction of play and the dynamic of the group. John Maxwell defines leadership as “influence – nothing more and nothing less”, and children are no less susceptible to the influence of others than we are.
Children’s games, both formally and informally, can develop and solidify perceptions of leadership in the very young. “Follow the leader” is a game where, in order to remain a part of it, one has to emulate as closely as possible the actions of the leader who, in turn, seeks to assert their uniqueness by frustrating the ‘followers’ with an increasing range of actions designed to set them apart. Perhaps the most literal leadership game played by children is “king of the hill”, where success comes through physically asserting ownership of the peak of the mound or hill at the expense of all others.
Whilst these games teach children a range of things about themselves and others, they don’t teach them the leadership lessons that we as adults would necessarily wish to instil. Influence can, as we all know, be used for negative as well as positive purposes. I worked in a school which displayed in its staffroom a “leaders board”. This board comprised a number of pupils who were viewed by staff and by their peers as being influential. The purpose of the board was to impress upon the adults in the school that these pupils, if positive about the school and its work, would spread such positivity across their peer group. The corollary also applied: if they were negative about school, about learning, about their prospects for the future, they may well “drag others down”. Our job as adults was to deliberately and explicitly provide positive reinforcement for these pupils, who in turn would implicitly influence similar positivity across the school. It was an interesting idea, and we believed – but couldn’t prove – that it had positive effects on the identified individuals and the wider climate across the school.
Within our Trust, we have identified some exceptional practice in the development of leadership potential in our young people. Many of our schools have always sought to harness leadership potential both within the curriculum and beyond it. School councils, eco-clubs, sports teams, Duke of Edinburgh and World Challenge, competitions and group activities have regularly been features of our provision. This year, we’ve sought to develop the potential of leaders further through explicit recognition of leadership via a conference for young leaders identified by their schools through a range of mechanisms.
This range of mechanisms is crucially important. Our leaders are not merely, and sometimes not at all, the “kings of the hill”. We know that leadership – in the purest sense of influence – comes in all shapes and sizes. Work on quiet and introverted leadership has become more prominent in our discourse, and more profound in our thinking. We also are aware that whilst some of our personality traits are innate, leadership is something that can be developed. Some will find the journey towards effective leadership harder and longer than others, but the notion of a “born leader” is as misleading as it is misguided.
Later this year I look forward to attending our Pupil Leadership Conference and working alongside some of the young people our school leaders have identified as being ready for the opportunity to work in this way with their counterparts from across the Trust’s schools. This is being co-ordinated by two of our headteachers – one primary and one secondary – who have demonstrated a passion and expertise in this area. It’s just one of the ways we are trying to do more, for more, by working together.
As always, thanks for reading.