Why We Need to Teach Leadership in Elementary School


“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”

– John Buchan

Leadership is one of the hardest words to define. Is the President of the United States a leader? What about your local business people or librarian – are they leaders? Are you a leader?

When it comes down to it, leadership is part of everyone – your Mom, your dentist, your yoga instructor, your trash collector – and yes, even you can be a leader. Even if you were a follower.

Followers are waiting to be leaders.

They’re waiting for their time. But, why wait? A lot of leaders don’t make their mark until college – or even later. They spend the majority of their life following. And following doesn’t get you anywhere.

The problem is this: followers won’t know they are capable of leading unless someone puts them in a leadership position, teaches them how to get things done, and bring a team along with them.

Here’s why student leadership is so important:

(even for when you’re teaching your students “sharing is caring”)

1. Focus

Finding something to do is easy as a student – there’s homework in every class, hanging out with friends, practicing for a role in the play, etc. Student’s lives are chaos. Leadership skills help students focus on what’s important. They know what needs to happen to get everything done. Whether that means scheduling it out on a calendar or sacrifice (see #3), it’s going to help everyone if they’re focused.

2. Courage

You’re at the top of a wall, facing the opposite direction of your peers down below. One step backwards, and you’re falling into the arms of your classmates. That’s terrifying (so are spiders). Leadership gives students an extra dose of courage. And if you’re teaching a classroom of leaders, they’ll coach each other through the team exercise. Courage gives students the power to do anything. After all, the scariest thing for students to do is get something started. Be courageous. Start a movement.

3. Sacrifice

Leaders realize what needs to go to get the team (you know, the followers) to the finish line: sacrifice. I remember when I was on a particular team project. My team members could have cared less about the project (because they knew I was the leader). I stayed up all night to get the project done – and done well. That’s sacrifice. Teach you students early and you’ll see an instant bump in quality. Because to do well you have to do less.

4. Planning

Disorganization is not the name of the game for young leaders. Teach project management to a leader and they’ll put it into action by splitting up the project, delegating, and bringing everyone else full circle.

5. Execution

Related to planning, execution is what leaders do: They get things done. Crossing a task off their to-do list is amazing, Turning in a research paper? Even better? Walking out the door on the last day of class? The best. Students who live for execution of tasks have leadership potential because they are fantastic planners (see #4). They know what needs to be done. Wouldn’t it be great if your students always knew what needed to be done and, well, just did it? That’s leadership. Students helping students to complete the task.

6. Team

Speaking of help, another reason to teach leadership to your students is the team aspect. Ever since you teach them to add and subtract, they’ll be in teams. Whether it’s helping each other, or trying to figure out how to approach a problem, good team work comes from amazing leadership. And amazing leadership doesn’t always have to come from you. In fact, it’s more important if it comes from your students. Go team!

7. Impact

I even went to economics & leadership camp. Yep – I spent one week of my summer in Boulder, CO learning economics in the morning and leadership in the afternoon. I not only made life-long friends, but was able to walk away being deeply impacted by what I learned and experienced. Leadership is powerful. Leadership is life-changing. Be a part of that impact for your students.

Leadership, while important for self-development, is also crucial for others to see – “Yes, I can do the same thing Billy is doing. I’m just as capable”. No, it’s not competition. It’s simply survival. Leaders get ahead. Leaders get things done. And they do it selflessly.

To hit the point further home for you, I compiled a list of my favorite TED Talks on leadership – and why they’re important to watch with your students. If you want to develop your students into the leaders of tomorrow, they may have to learn far beyond the textbook. Enjoy 🙂

The Best TED Talks on Leadership:

TED Talks are a great way to supplement your curriculum. And they cover pretty much any subject. The following three talks are some of my favorites when it comes to leadership and inspiring action in your students. Oh, and don’t worry – they are all PG – safe for any age.

1. Drew Dudley

There’s a reason this talk is number one – it’s my favorite. I watched this at the recommendation of a college friend who works in higher education (plus it’s a story about what happened at course registration in college). Have you had a lollipop moment? I highly recommend sharing this video with your students.

2. Simon Sinek

This is a fabulous talk on the importance of leadership in the workplace. Ideal for high school or college-aged kids, Sinek talks about the power of starting with why people do things – not how or what or who – but why.

 3. Amy Cuddy

After you watch this talk, you ‘ll never cross your arms during a conversation again. While not directly about leadership, Dr. Cuddy explains how your body, while in power position, can make an incredible different on you – and those around you.

With a list of reasons and great videos in hand, you’re left with one simple question:

How do you turn your students into leaders?

It’s quite simple actually. (Ok, nothing is really that simple). Here’s my 5-step process to take your students from lazy to leader (and it helps you in the process!).

 Step 1: Identify students to turn into leaders (TEAM).

Start with a small group to see if this works. If it does, roll it out to the whole class. There’s no use in getting the whole class involved unless they want to be involved.

Step 2:  Get feedback on your class – What’s working? What isn’t? (PLAN)

This could be risky, but hopefully you’ve created an open dialog with your students to be able to say what’s going on – and what simply isn’t working.

Step 3: Narrow down what you and your students would like to change (FOCUS)

You can’t tackle 10 changes at once. Work with a focused list of three to make class time with your students even better.

Step 4: Start with one change and see how it goes (EXECUTION)

Pick one thing to change in your classroom for the week – or two weeks if you’re on a rotating schedule. This helps your small group plan how they’re going to make the biggest impact. Speaking of impact….

Step 5: See how it went with your small group and the rest of the class (IMPACT)

Get feedback from your small team and the rest of the class to see if they change in your classroom made a difference – if there was any true impact.

See what I did there? I’m walking you through leadership in the classroom (while getting you valuable feedback on how your class is going). Cool, huh?

In the end, leadership can be taught. It needs to be taught early so that your students have the impact you want them to have and they want to make. With a couple classroom lessons and several opportunities to put what they’ve learned into action, you’ll be teaching a bunch of little leaders in no time.

What do you think? Should leadership be taught at such an early age? Or, is it important to have leaders and followers? Let me know in the comments below.

And, if you enjoyed this resource, check out QuizBean – it’s a fun tool to help you build those leadership quizzes 🙂