As parents, we hope our children develop leadership skills, but what does this mean? We are all experiencing incredible changes in how we work and how we work together, and these changes might leave us to wonder about the mindsets and skills our children will need to become effective leaders. 

In Dr. Jeffrey Spahn’s recent book, We the Leader, he explores our assumptions regarding leadership, considers its evolution, and proposes new ways of thinking about leading and following. While Dr. Spahn has focused on work with executive teams, the framework emerging from his experiences applies to all walks of life and especially to our efforts as parents, teachers, and coaches to help develop young people prepared to lead.

At the core of the We the Leader approach, Dr. Spahn emphasizes three core potentials:

1. Everyone is a leader. 

2. Everyone is a follower. 

3. Everyone is a leader-follower. 


While these statements seem simple, I find myself wondering whether I treat them as true in my own life. Do I really view everyone around me as a leader? Do I always view myself as a leader? When I am in a position of leadership, do I also remain a follower? And, do I ever embrace the idea of leading and following in the same moment?

Reflecting on my own experiences, I have come to view some of my favorite moments in teaching and coaching somewhat differently. The best class discussions and most memorable athletic performances of which I have been a part have all occurred when the members of my class or team developed a shared purpose and interacted with each other accordingly. Upon reflection, I have realized I am at my best as a teacher and coach when my classes and teams know and share clear goals and then proceed accordingly. Simply put, I am most effective as a leader when I am working with my students and players to achieve our shared purpose. In these moments we are all leading and following to various degrees.

 

Becoming a Leader-Follower

Dr. Spahn offers two essential elements for achieving group dynamics in which everyone can effectively lead and follow.  

First, Dr. Spahn emphasizes, “leading our own lives” by “developing skills and practices that create the space and will for fresh and conscious choices, moment by moment.” Using a playful acronym, Dr. Spahn highlights the importance of responsibility, redefining the term as the ability to respond. Developing this concept, Dr. Spahn focuses on enhancing self-awareness, encouraging us to BOSS ourselves:

Breathe

Observe

Select to select (make a conscious choice to choose)

Select (choose) 

Such an emphasis on slowing down, observing rather than obeying emotions, and making conscious choices is relevant for everyone, regardless of age. As parents, teachers, and coaches, modeling and helping young people develop such a mindset is crucial.

 

Developing Curious Conviction

Once individuals lead themselves, they also have the opportunity to develop the second essential element to the We the Leader framework – curious conviction. Dr. Spahn notes that bringing a strong conviction to our classrooms, teams, and other groups is a requirement for leadership. Without sharing such conviction, we fail those around us by not contributing our strongly-held thoughts, ideas, and feelings. At the same time, we must also maintain genuine curiosity in seeking and understanding the convictions of those around us. When we achieve a mindset of curious conviction, we are more inclusive and unlock far-greater creative potential. 

The practice of curious conviction, of course, is not limited to adults. Young boys in kindergarten discussing how to solve a puzzle and juniors developing approaches to a difficult physics lab benefit from the practice of curious conviction just as much as any adult does. 

This raises the question: How do we help young people achieve a mindset of curious conviction? 

First, it is important that we encourage and celebrate conviction in our children and students.  Encouraging young people to express themselves is one thing, but celebrating these expressions, reserving judgment, and showing our own curiosity about their convictions requires a high degree of intentionality. One practice that Dr. Spahn suggests is to “wait three times.” In contexts when we are an authoritative presence, certainly true for us as teachers and parents, wait three times before offering our thoughts, questions, and ideas. Following this practice slows down our responses, enables others to be heard, and enhances the opportunity to listen effectively. 

Modeling curious conviction is an important first step, but our children also need our guidance in structuring their practice. When a teacher pauses a class discussion to highlight the positive effect of someone exhibiting a mindset of curious conviction, the teacher is helping students develop an awareness of group dynamics that will serve them well for the rest of the class and, with reinforcement, for the rest of their lives. Similarly, when we as parents encourage our children to share their thoughts, opinions, and questions and when we exhibit respect for what they share, we enhance their confidence and help them to view themselves as leaders. Moreover, when we offer our students structured opportunities to hear from each other and create guidelines that encourage everyone to share and understand what those around them are sharing, we are strengthening the leadership skills of the young people we seek to develop. 

With our own children, we have so many opportunities to read, listen, or observe the  expression of a wide range of perspectives. When we have these opportunities, ask questions: What is the opinion? What assumptions support the opinion? Why does the writer or speaker hold that opinion?  How does the opinion make you feel and why? Such questions set the stage for a far richer discussion and offer a stronger framework for enhancing everyone’s ability to demonstrate curious conviction. 

While the bulk of Dr. Spahn’s work has been with adults, the habits and mindset he promotes are a lifetime in the making. As parents and teachers, we play an integral role in helping our children and students prepare to be effective leaders, and our commitment to this work will shape their world.



Ben Malbasa, Director of the Center for the Education of Boys and Head Football Coach

Ben Malbasa, is the Director of the Center for the Education of Boys, which leverages the best practices of University School faculty to support and strengthen those who work with boys. He is the head football coach at University School and has 11 years of varsity coaching experience at schools in the Cleveland area including Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, Benedictine, and Elyria Catholic High Schools. At University School his teams have earned consecutive OHSAA Playoff berths in 2016 and 2017, and Team Academic All-Ohio honors for each of the past three seasons. A member of the University School faculty since 2015, he also serves as Director of the school’s Annual Fund and has taught English at the Upper School.