Tuesday, 30 July 2013 00:30

Are children better leaders than adults?

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iStock 000008297165SmallWe all assume that adults know more than children – language, mathematics, science, general knowledge. But in the art and science of leadership, children demonstrate more natural leadership traits than adults.

This may come as a surprise to teachers and educators, particularly those that have been frustrated (as we have!) by a lack of listening skills, constant questions and numerous examples of poor teamwork from students. To our surprise, through a series of experiential leadership activities (conducted with more than 2500 adults and more than 1500 children), we have found five ways in which children consistently demonstrate better leadership and team development skills than adults. These areas are: focussing on the end goal, problem solving, adapting to change, acceptance of difference and willingness to learn.


1.             Beginning with the end in mind. 


A term coined by Stephen Cover (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), it refers to the ability to look at the big picture and not get bogged down with minor details.

In the marshmallow challenge (www.marshmallowchallenge.com), participants are asked to build a marshmallow tower using spaghetti and tape in 18 minutes, the aim of which is to make the tallest tower that can support a marshmallow. The difference between how adults and children approach this activity couldn’t be more different. Adults discuss their options, on occasion do some minor planning, then begin building their tower. A large amount of effort is focused on ensuring that everyone has a role and that everyone is happy. On average, adult teams don’t even touch the marshmallow until 15 minutes into the activity, often resulting in a last minute panic (resembling some workplaces?). Children on the other hand, begin with the simple tenant of building a tower to support a marshmallow. The marshmallow becomes central to their tower, and they build their tower always with the marshmallow in mind. Although adults build taller towers (thank goodness!), their rate of success (achieving a successful tower) is much less than children. Adults are all or nothing – children focus on completion and meeting the requirements of the task at hand and beginning with the end in mind.

It is interesting to note that from our experience, teenagers demonstrate traits more like adults, and are less successful at the activity than younger children.


2.            Problem Solving


In experiential leadership activities, children are better at providing ideas and creating options than adults. While adults can often produce the best ideas, more often than not they languish in the volume of ideas that are provided for the group and the leader. Adults are also far more likely to focus on one idea and drive this to execution, rather than evaluating a larger number of options. Children on the other hand, come up with a large range of ideas, and keep coming up with ideas after a good option has been determined. They demonstrate a willingness to try new things, and keep trying when initial ideas do not bear fruit. While children may not come up with the best option for completing a task, they have a greater array of ideas from which to make a decision.


3.            Adaption to Change


In the experiential activity Invisible Maze, children consistently demonstrate a far greater ability to recognize and adapt to change than adults. The activity requires participants to navigate their way across an 8 x 8 checkerboard, with an invisible route through the maze determined via trial and error of the team. After a period of 10 minutes, the route through the maze is changed (without participant knowledge), forcing the team to react and adapt to the new requirements. On average, it takes children 3 attempts (the highest amount being 7) at the changed maze before they adapt to the new requirements and continue with the task. Although some children exhibit frustration at the change, the process of change is mostly positive, most likely relating to their greater ability to problem solve. Adults on the other hand take an average of 7 attempts (the highest amount being 13) to successfully adapt to the new maze. The range of emotional response from adults is also vastly different to children.  Emotions such as frustration, anger, resentment, aloofness and irritation accompany an adult groups response to change, as well as the usual acceptance.


We postulate that a child’s ability to adapt to change so readily has to do with the fact that they have a low locus of control over many aspects of their lives (school, meals, sleep times etc).  As a rule, they are more accustomed to having to adapt to the changes of teachers and parents without being consulted. Adults on the other hand have a large locus of control over most aspects of their lives. Where they work, when they eat/sleep and how they plan their day is in the control of most adults. When a decision is made without their knowledge or input, they are far less prepared to accept this than children.


4.             Acceptance of both Difference and Weakness


Most of the experiential activities used with both adults and children have a requirement for (non-taxing) physical activity. When groups are briefed on these activities, no reference is made to people with injuries or pre-existing conditions, or to what people are required to wear. It is expected that members of the team will work out the best way for all members of the team to complete the activity. Once again, children meet this requirement more effectively than adults. More often than not, children faced with a team member with a physical impairment or injury, will adapt their method of completion to include the injured person. Additional ideas will be sought and processes changed (without complaint) to include all of the members of the team. Children appear quite ready to accept the inherent differences within their teams and recognise that team members bring different strengths and weaknesses to the team.

When adults are faced with an activity that might put one or more of the members of the team in an uncomfortable position (restricted clothing, high heels, physical size or impairment etc), they are more likely to seek an exception from the activity than change their plan for completion. Members who have some form of limitation in their ability to complete tasks feel this keenly, as the team more often than not does not try to adapt plans to cater to all abilities. While this is not always the case, adults are far less likely than children to cater to physical / emotional difference or weakness from members of the team.


5.             Willingness to Learn


In their ability to listen and their willingness to learn (both from others and from their own mistakes) children far exceed adults in ability. Children demonstrate an ability to listen fully to experiential activity briefs, consider their options, and then ask questions to clarify any ambiguity regarding instructions. If anything, children demonstrate this ability to excess, often asking more questions than they need before they are sure they can complete a task. During an activity debrief, children are far more willing to discuss the areas in which they needed to improve, as well as recognise the areas in which they did well.


During briefs, adults are less likely to listen effectively to instructions, often only half-listening to the latter half of a brief as they begin to plan / discuss their first ideas. Comments such as ‘I have done this before’ or ‘This should be easy’ abound, with talking rather than listening being the main focus of communication. Instructions and rules often have to be repeated because they were not listened effectively to the first brief. Although adults are quite effective at discussing the strengths of their approach to a task, they are more likely to be reticent on discussing areas for improvement.


Imagine the Difference


Imagine how much more effective our leaders would be if they:


1.            Focussed on end requirements rather than on less important detail,

2.            Listened to all options to solve a problem and evaluated on merits,

3.            Recognised changes in the workplace and skillfully adapted both their behaviour and influenced the behaviour of their team,

4.            Accepted both the strengths and limitations of team members equally, and

5.            Demonstrated a willingness to learn from successes and mistakes (both from themselves and their people).


Seeking inspirational leadership requires us to look no further than the School playground. Examples of great leadership are demonstrated every day, we just have to have the eyes to see them and the desire to learn from them.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 September 2013 22:55

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