Identifying Young Influencers

by Alan E. Nelson

I’m convinced that the most overlooked single resource in the church today is our children leaders. Those hard-wired, God-blessed individuals who possess social skills that, good or bad, cause their peers to follow them, must be tapped if we are to see the church flourish in the future. I believe this so much that after 20-plus years of pastoral work, I left a salary and benefits with a major Christian publisher, to pursue the call to identify and develop these future leaders on a national level through a non-profit we created called KidLead (www.kidlead.com).

Before we learn to identify young leaders, we need to understand why it’s important to do this. First, they are the hope for the church. Unlike adults, they’re still pliable and can learn leadership skills combined with character qualities. In our culture, most leadership training does not begin until the ages of 25-35, when companies send promising leader types to conferences and through mentoring programs. That’s too late for maximum impact.

Secondly, we need to understand the unique role God has endowed in this thing we call leadership. Leadership is about coordinating the many parts of his body, so they function together. Leadership is about helping all of us use our gifts toward a common goal and purpose. When leadership fails, we all fail, because we don’t get to use our gifts synergistically. Leadership allows us to accomplish together what we cannot as individuals.

In order to identify those with leadership aptitude, we also need to define leadership. Because of the term’s current popularity, leadership has become a “many splendored thing.” We tack it on to seminars, books, workshops, and whatever else as a marketing ploy. In my book, KidLead: Growing Great Leaders, I define leadership and leaders this way:

  • Leadership is the process of helping people accomplish together, what they could not as individuals.
  • Leaders are those who get leadership going.

That’s simple, but by defining it this way, we’re not talking about character, self-esteem, discipleship, service, or any number of similar qualities. These are valuable and important, but different from leading.

Based on this definition, only about 10% of people have innate talent toward leading on a consistent basis. We might refer to this type as organizational leading. This transcends leading a friend, family, or other form of influence. About 10-20% possess a good amount of aptitude for learning how to lead. Another 60% can learn various leadership skills so that if called to lead, they can do so temporarily. The remaining 20-30% has no desire to lead and will just as likely run from a situation where it is required. That means there are basically three categories: “L,” “l” and “F.”

An “L” is a natural, gifted, talented leader who has the aptitude to learn how to lead well and will intuitively gravitate to situations where leadership is needed and may even try to lead when s/he shouldn’t. This is comparable to other talents such as a specific sport, music, art, or school subject. It’s much the same as spiritual gifts like prayer, administration, teaching, or evangelism. All of us only do 2-3 things really well. This is how God has wired us and how he designed us all to work together.

An “l” (small “l”) is a person with a certain level of ability to learn various degrees of leadership skill. This is equivalent to a recreational soccer player as compared to a travel team or pro-soccer athlete. Playing at soccer can be fun and a good social experience, but few are apt to earn a scholarship or make a living from the skill.

An “F” is a follower, someone who can be a great team member, but has little aptitude for leading. Everyone should learn how leadership works, how to identify a bad leader, and how to serve according to his or her gifts. But we do best concentrating leadership development on those with God-given wiring to lead. It’s a matter of stewardship.

Biblical passages reflecting limited commodity strengths, in addition to the traditional 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 include Jesus’ parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and Exodus 18, where God organizes the people of Israel. Jesus told the story of three servants, each given 1, 2, and 5 Talents respectively. Each was not given an equal amount. Jesus said, “they were given according to their abilities.” In other words, Talents represented opportunity and responsibility more than ability. In Exodus 18, Jethro tells Moses to find people who can lead groups of 10, 50, 100, and 1000. Different responsibilities require appropriate abilities to respond.

While we like the American concept of egalitarian opportunity, accomplishing whatever you dream possible, reality says that all of us are only good at a few things. We’ll be most productive if we discover what these are and play to our strengths. For example, it is impossible for more than a dozen or so people in a lifetime to become President of the United States, so out of 300,000,000, chances are slim that those who dream it will experience it. Enough said.

I have belabored the point because I constantly run into people who object to identifying and culling out leaders, for fear of creating an elitist attitude. The goal is not to exclude kids as it is to include those who should be invited for specialized training. This is an important part of our LeadNow training in that we’ve found that those with leadership aptitude learn significantly from their peers, catalyzing further and faster development. This provides a unique opportunity to develop those who will become leaders of 100s and 1000s in years go come, providing them a 10-20 year head start from when most leadership training begins.

Now, let’s look at 5 brief characteristics that are indicative of youth who possess strong leadership aptitude.

1. To whom do other kids look for direction?
Years ago, an advertisement campaign featured an investment company named EF Hutton. The tagline went, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” The EF Hutton effect holds true for leaders. Not all kids are created equal when it comes to natural influence. When certain individuals say things in small and large groups, they get more attention. This is a sign of leadership. Peers look to these kids and listen. Children who act out may get momentary attention, but heads return quickly to the previous activity. Leaders are those who hold the glance significantly longer.

2. To whom do adults turn for leadership roles? 
Adults often intuitively sense which kids they look to for assistance in channeling the energy of other kids. One way I teach adults how to identify their leaders is by interviewing them. Listen for things such as, “I was the captain of my basketball team,” or “I was president of the fraternity,” or examples such as this. Adults have a way of picking kids who naturally exude an ability to steer their friends. One exception of this is when a young leader becomes labeled as a troublemaker, who steals attention away from adults and/or lacks self-discipline to lead responsibly. That is unfortunate, since many of these are strong leaders who merely need developing.

3. Who is noticed when s/he is absent? 
While we may love all our kids, there are certain ones who are noticed more than others. Except for the obvious “challenges,” the ones we miss most or at least hear mentioned most when absent, are the leader types. One exception is the popular student who is not necessarily a leader, but when leaders are missing, people notice. You hear their names mentioned more in conversations.

4. Who has the ability to “steal” attention from an adult? 
This is the child we mentioned earlier, who sometimes gets a bum rap or is labeled as a problem, because s/he is able to draw attention away from a teacher, children’s pastor or worship leader. For every half dozen or more fifth grade boys cutting up in the back of church, I guarantee you there’s one ring leader who controls most of the influence. When we fail to understand that these are budding leaders trying to use their gifts, we get intimidated, angry, and often alienate these influencers, a mistake. We discourage them from using their gifts in church.

5. Who expresses opinions and/or suggestions?
In the adult world, these people tend to bug us as pastors, but many opinionated people are leaders, because leaders have a lot of ideas. When we fail to use leaders constructively and/or provide a positive means of unleashing and tapping these ideas, we’ll often create unhealthy environments for criticism. Opinionated children can really get under our skin at times, but many of these kids are sprouting leader minds.

In most groups, about 10% will control 80% of the social interaction. They are able to move the group out of status quo. By identifying these young influencers, you can begin to develop them positively by creating a plan to do that. We’ll discuss this further in next month’s INCM e-zine.

For a more robust list of leader qualities, we’ve developed a Social Influence Survey. This is the first of its kind leadership aptitude assessment, free and online atwww.kidlead.com. Click on “FREE Aptitude Assessment” and you’ll find a 25-question, multiple-choice survey that you can take on a child. Parents who do this get an automated tally along with a key for better understanding each question. This does not predict leadership success as much as it reflects those with observable aptitude. We won’t give you the averages, lest you’re tempted to bias the results, but it’s a good way to measure who it is you need to be officially developing.

Content adapted from Alan’s book, KidLead “Growing Great Leaders.” Alan E. Nelson has a doctorate (EdD) from the University of San Diego, is the founder of KidLead (www.kidlead.com) and lives with his family near Monterey, CA.

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