Are You As Good a Leader As a Fifth Grader?
“It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service.”
My daughter recently started Grade 5.
Apart from being astonished that she has grown up so fast (where has the time gone?) I was impressed that her school has a tradition of engaging students more thoroughly in the art and science of leadership in the fifth grade. Leadership is usually top of mind for me: I have a Master’s Degree in the subject and run a consulting company, Berlineaton, that helps clients across Canada improve their organizations through leading more effectively.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership, it’s that good leaders are always learning. I was therefore looking forward to learning, vicariously or otherwise, something from my daughter’s leadership journey. I had an opportunity to join that journey during an assembly held near the beginning of the school year. At the assembly, each Grade 5 student stood up and answered the question: “What is a leader?” from their individual points of view. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and thought perhaps the kids would focus on exhortations to ‘stop bullying’ or some other repackaging of various kinds of important, yet facile, educational sector messaging that seems so prevalent these days.
But what I actually heard simply blew me away.
With great passion, confidence, eloquence and conviction, each of these 43 young leaders stood up in front of the microphone, in front of the whole school and their parents (clearly an act of great leadership in itself), and shared their views. As I listened to each student, it struck me that some consistent themes about the complex subject of leadership were emerging. As they finished, I wondered what we could discover about leadership from these young leaders if we could analyze these excellent speeches, just a bit, to see what the message from Grade 5 to the world might be.
I asked the Vice Principal if she would share the text of all the speeches with me for analysis. Fortunately, she had them captured already so quickly sent them to me. I looked at all the speeches then grouped the adjectives I could identify, adjectives describing the ‘ideal’ leader, into the following themes, counting how many times each word or theme appeared. Here are some of the top themes:
Selfless, and thinks of others before themselves: 22
Kind, nice and compassionate: 20
Takes care of, and stands up for, others: 19
Sets a good example and encourages good behavior: 18
Makes good decisions and choices: 14
Never gives up and does their best: 12
Treats others as they would want to be treated: 8
Help people feel good about themselves: 3
Set goals and make plans: 3
You will notice that adjectives like ‘Helpful, Respectful and Selfless’ appeared most often. I was also fascinated to learn that the more 'task' focused aspects of management take a back seat to the more people focused aspects of leadership. You should also note that these are their words, not mine, and reflect a level of sophistication that I wasn’t really expecting to see in a group of 10 year olds.
I then transcribed these words and themes into a statement about leadership, using the words in order of priority to reflect the relative weight that Grade 5 as a whole ascribed to each of these important concepts. And so, here it is. Grade 5’s answer to the question: What is a leader?:
"Above all, a leader is helpful and respectful. They are also selfless, kind and compassionate; thinking of others before themselves and taking care of, and standing up for, others while setting a good example and encouraging good behavior. Leaders make good decisions and choices. They never give up, are honest, and always do their best. Leaders treat others as they would want to be treated, and are inclusive, trustworthy and confident. A leader helps people feel good about themselves. They set goals and make plans, learn from experience, are curious, and work for and help the community. Leaders are polite. They take charge but don’t take over, listen, and are thoughtful, optimistic, wise, courageous, fair, open and generous. Leaders know right from wrong and help make the world a better place while making work peaceful and enjoyable; like a good friend."
On comparing these important leadership values with various philosophies current in the field of leadership, it seems clear to me that Grade 5’s beliefs connect most closely with the concept of ‘Servant Leadership’. Associated most closely with the works of Robert K. Greenleaf:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” - Robert K. Greenleaf
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Servant leadership is amongst the most sought after, and difficult to achieve, leadership approaches in the business world right now. Corporate giants like Starbucks, Marriott, Whole Foods and Nordstroms have embraced this concept. In fact, if you are one of the top ten best companies to work for, there’s at least a 50% chance that you espouse the values of a servant leader.
Are you as good a leader as a fifth grader? If you practice servant leadership in your organization, you just might be.
To find out more about how to build your leadership competencies, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.