When teaching children leadership, should we emphasize conceptual frameworks, theories, and principles or on rote lists, leadership formulas, or behavioral scripts, or some combination of both?

Procedures and other leadership ‘recipes’ work well enough in routine task environments and predictable situations while they are children, but they tend to limit effectiveness in new problem situations and in chaotic unpredictable environments as they grow older.

So because children thrive with a greater degree of order, perhaps we start with basic rules of thumb, but as they grow, we need to ensure an understanding of leadership principles and concepts to help them be more capable of creative and adaptive behavior.

As our world seems to accelerate, it seems a reasonable assumption that, in the kind of complex changing environment in which our children will become leaders, that they will need to be analytical, flexible, and creative. It may help to think of leadership as an adaptive capability. We teach them the theoretical foundations so they can achieve insight and predict human behavior to some degree. The decision cycle time for leaders is shrinking and the children will need to, as future adult leaders, come to the situation as they are. There is not the time to prepare when the moment of testing occurs.

Ornstein and Hunkins (1993, p. 184) indicated that a theory is a >”device for interpreting, criticizing and unifying established laws, modifying them to fit data unanticipated in their formation, and guiding the enterprise of discovering new and more powerful generalisation.”

Bernath and Vidal (2006, p 3) states that >”Theories imply a systematic ordering of ideas about the phenomena of our field of inquiry and are usually of two kinds. One is concerned with understanding, the other with explanation and prediction.”

Bernath and Vidal (2006, p 4) states, >”The Greek word theorein meant to look upon, to observe, to consider,to contemplate; and the noun theoría meant looking at, looking more closely, observation, consideration, insight and scientific contemplation. The goal of these activities was to ascertain truth. The basic meaning of the word is still valid and underpins most of our modern definition of theory.”

So is using theory, causal models, behavioral analysis, and other systematic efforts to identify underlying regularities and patterns in leadership applicable with children? Some leadership practitioners I have spoken to object to focusing on theory with adults or children. They bring up a valid argument, that simply learning the principles of leadership and rules of thumb will not make someone a skilled leader. I have validated this in coaching other leaders. But leadership can be taught. I have both learned it, taught it, and helped others practice it better. Theory helps to leverage our understanding and predict to a useful degree.

As with all things with children, theory has to be introduced a little at a time, rather than all at once. The point is not to get it over with, but rather to help them see and do better. Bernath and Vidal (2006, p 6) go on to say, “At elementary levels the whole of a course can be – and in my view should be –developed as a conversation, preferably of a Socratic type, to help students reach their goals.” This is sound advice for teaching leadership theory to children. Conversation and spending time with children, being present, helps them stay engaged for learning.

Leadership is a practical performing art, valued in many organizations because of its decisive effects in preparing people for, and getting them through, trying circumstances and achieving organizational goals and objectives in a repeatable way.

Leaders make use of everyday processes of relationship building and social influence to get things done. So, an understanding of these processes and insight into how they might be most appropriately applied can improve individual and collective performance.

This is why we should teach theory. Even to children in small bites with application. The recipes and heuristics are a good starting point, but can only take them so far.

Sources: This post is not my work. It is someone else’s ideas applied in the context of teaching children leadership. Modified from the Leadership in the Canadian Forces, Conceptual Foundations Manual 2005

Ornstein, A., & Hunkins, F. (1993). Curriculum foundations, principles, and theory. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bernath, Ulrich and Vidal, Martine. (2006). “The Theories and the Theorists: Why Theory is Important for Research”)

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KW Lanham



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