Teaching Leadership to Kids – An Essential Life Lesson

by Alli Polin on March 21, 2017

A few weeks ago I told people that I’m doing a leadership development workshop for a group that is not my usual audience. The oldest person in the crowd will be no more than eleven years old. The youngest? Likely eight. Yup, it’s a leadership workshop for elected leaders at a local primary school. 

When they asked me to come in, I asked them a bunch of questions. 

What are their challenges?


What do they want to get out of our session?

I got little response. 

I tried another approach.

Here are some critical leadership competencies… Where do you want to focus?

In the end, I was told, “Whatever you do will be great. Send us the agenda and overview in advance.”

I’m not a fan of doing work for people who don’t know what they want. Moreover, those same people often know more about what they don’t want only when they see it. Still, I said I’d pull something together. 

My goals were to create an event that was primarily hands on, simple, and filled with lessons that they can carry with them into adulthood. I like the idea of our time together filling up a leadership suitcase that they can carry with them on their travels. Easy peasy. 

In the end, I crafted a workshop with three components:

1) Identifying your leadership gifts (and appreciating that we ALL bring something different and special to the table – elected title or not.)

2) Leadership SOS

3) The power of words

There are a billion places to start when teaching leadership to kids. Also, I’m a firm believer that teaching leadership not only happens in the classroom at school, or for kids elected to the student council, but with their parents at home. (If you’re a parent who wants to help your children tap into their leader within, check out the Parent’s Guide to Leadership)

The one component of my workshop that you may not be familiar with is Leadership SOS

What is SOS?

SOS is a distress signal. When you put out an SOS, help is needed – stat! 

What is Leadership SOS?

There are two parts to Leadership SOS. 

One is hearing and seeing the signal (maybe even before the fire is a nine-alarm) that someone needs help. 

Two is helping. 

Simple, right? Well, maybe not. If you take a poll, and ask employees across organizations and ask if their leadership team sees the need for help before the alarm is raised and everything is about to burn, most would answer “no.” 

Leadership SOS is learning to Speak Up or Stand Up when needed. 

After all, the most powerful question a leader can ask is “How can I help?”

In the workshop, we’re going to do a series of exercises and in one of them, “leaders” are paired with “mates.” The direction to leaders is to make sure that the “mate” gets the assignment done and doesn’t cheat. What happens with adults, is that most of the time the “mate” doesn’t ask for help and the leader doesn’t jump in to help them. They just follow the directions and make sure that the work gets done. Gee, sounds familiar. 

In this exercise, the “leaders” could step up to help, but the “mate” could also ask for what they need.  In fact, they should. 

Teaching Leadership – Why It’s Essential to Learn Leaders Speak Up and Stand Up

There are countless reasons why leaders need to speak up and stand up for themselves and others. Teaching kids those lessons helps to remove the stigma and fear with being the one who rocks the boat that so many adults hold near and dear.

Never assume that someone will notice a need just because you did. 

If you never bring your ideas to the table, eventually someone else will.

Someone else may not be as brave as you. 

Wrongs never get made right by looking the other way.

Asking for help is not weak, it’s a sign of strength and a desire to be and do your best.

Leaders don’t run and hide when they see a need, they speak up and stand up.

When the kids leave my workshop, I want them to know that being a leader is a responsibility, not a title or a fancy pin that they get to wear for the school year. Even more important, I want them to know that the school is filled with leaders who didn’t run for office or weren’t elected. They all have unique talents and gifts inside of them that make them a leader. The real gift is helping someone else discover theirs…

Yes, there were a million ways I could have taken my brief time with them but here’s where I landed. What about you? What would you include in a workshop geared to teaching leadership to kids? Would love your thoughts. 

PS. If you’d like to know more about teaching leadership to kids or you’d like some details this workshop, drop me a line. I’m happy to share. 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

John Thurlbeck March 21, 2017 at 6:39 am

Loved the post and the fact that you took on the assignment, despite some reservations. Children and young people need those leadership lessons more than most, and when they learn then, they can fly!

Check out my youth charity, circlecrewforchange.com, and see what can happen. Those young people were eleven and twelve when they started that journey with me. They run the company and are the majority decision power on the Board of Trustees. You just have to make a start, so I am with you 100% my friend!

I also loved Leadership SOS – helping others and being helped are often the different sides of the same coin in my experience. Whatever your role, you must be able to speak up and stand up!

I look forward to hearing how the program went!

Have a brilliant week ahead! John 🙂


Alli Polin March 21, 2017 at 6:52 am

Grateful for your feedback, John. Circle Crew for Change is inspiring! Amazing what young people can do when you empower them to do it.

Also – I’m with you. I think helping others and being helped are flip sides. Better to learn now than never… like far too many leaders out there today.

Many thanks!



Gary Gruber March 21, 2017 at 7:51 am

First off, working with kids, both young and old, has been one of the great joys of my life. I always found them interesting, interested, curious and eager to learn. I would have started with some basics like What is a leader and then having gotten mostly standard responses that they heard somewhere else, I would take them a little deeper and like you, explore some dimensions with which they may not be familiar. Leaders also need followers. Maybe by following a good leader you can learn and become a leader yourself. (That’s all about mentoring.) Yada, yada, yada and most of all I would have fun with them and play some leader games and then see what we might have learned from those experiences. “Gamestorming” is a good handbook for me


Alli Polin March 21, 2017 at 8:19 am

Thanks, Gary. Just looked up Gamestorming and reminds me of one of my favorites that I turn to again and again, Thinkertoys. Will check it out.

Sounds like we’d start in a similar place. That’s where I’m starting. We’re going to come up with what makes a good leader and on the other side, what makes a bad one.

Also, appreciate your point that by following a good leader, you can become a good leader. Followership and leadership are very much intertwined. Workshop is on Friday and I’m going to take your comments to heart.

With gratitude,



Gary Gruber March 21, 2017 at 8:34 am

Thanks! Have fun with them and I will be eager to hear more about your experience, and theirs too. When I was a school head I did a lot of MBWA and one day, I spoke to a group of a hundred or so little kids at an assembly at their campus about a block from my office. I was introduced as the headmaster and they were reminded that they knew who I was and that my job of leading the school was very important. So, I took the opportunity to begin my brief remarks with a question: “Ms. Donaldson just said I was the head of the school and that I was a leader. What do you think that I do?” One little girl, probably about third grade raised her hand excitedly so I called on her and said, “Susan, looks like you have the answer, what do you think that I do?” Susan: “Your job is to walk around and look busy.” So after much laughter, I took that to heart and continued to manage by walking around and looking busy. I had some of the very best conversations in that learning environment.


Terri Klass March 21, 2017 at 11:31 am

Your workshop in helping kids become empowered leaders is awesome! I love the exercises you are suggesting and creating accountability partners is so on point.

Kids are natural leaders and I might ask them besides school where they can be leaders. If kids can believe they have a right to speak up for what they believe they will be better citizens and employees.

Will share your course with everyone who connects with kids! Thanks Alli!


Alli Polin March 27, 2017 at 11:08 pm

Thanks, Terri! It was a great workshop. I learned a lot from them in return for my time. 🙂


LaRae Quy March 21, 2017 at 7:03 pm

I love the fact that you were asked to teach primary school leaders. It must have been very rewarding to know that you were looked upon as someone who take these impressional young minds and give them something to chew on as they develop their leadership skills. I love all of your suggestions but I think the one that could have the most impact is #3 the power of words. I find that language has gotten incredibly lazy…not because we need big words to define our feelings but because we need accurate ones. If we are sloppy with the words we use, it’s hard to communicate in a way that leader needs to communicate with others.


Alli Polin March 27, 2017 at 11:11 pm

I’m with you, LaRae. In the actual program, we ran out of time before my final activity but I did work it in earlier in the agenda. Thankfully…

I do anticipate another workshop at the school and will likely build something around your recommendation here to do early in the program. Thanks!


Jon Mertz March 21, 2017 at 9:12 pm

Great work, Alli! What fun and rewarding thing to do.

I would ask them to think about their story for the next 5 years. How do they want it to unfold? Who are the key characters to support and challenge them? How does this 5 year story relate to their next 5 years?

Some thoughts.



Alli Polin March 27, 2017 at 11:14 pm

I think some of the 3rd graders would have a hard time picturing themselves in 7th grade. Ha! However, what I get from your recommendation is to be intentional with writing your story. Key characters, unfolding…. that’s a brilliant approach. Many thanks. Going to chew on that for another class I’m going in to work with next term. I feel something brewing!



John Watson March 22, 2017 at 6:46 am

I really appreciated this post. It brought home a lot of what I’ve learned along the way and will be helpful for me personally as I continue to strive to be a leader and help others develop their talents as a leader. Thank you!


Alli Polin March 23, 2017 at 7:19 am

Thanks so much, John. Your feedback means a lot.


Brian Smith March 26, 2017 at 9:51 am

Good stuff Alli – Love your writing style. Always a worth while read. I taught College for a dozen years and facilitate workshops for mostly adults, so I can appreciate how difficult it is to keep people interested in the session. Young students, with traditionally short attention spans, is even a greater challenge. Well done.


Alli Polin March 27, 2017 at 11:07 pm

I’ve been working with adult learners since 1993. This was a wonderful shift. Their energy and willingness to contribute was amazing. Almost every hand went up even on questions that wouldn’t have flattering answers. Unlike adults, they didn’t yet have the need to look good but did commit to going all in. Thanks, Brian!


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