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How to Develop Youth into Leaders

Life experiences that will build leadership capacity.

Key points

  • In pre-school years, quality of parenting and play activities with peers are critical for early leadership development.
  • During elementary school, children can learn the importance of building positive relationships with their classmates and with important adults.
  • Adolescence is a time for developing critical leadership skills because of leadership positions in the classroom and in extracurriculars.

In a recent publication, we took a “long lens” approach to leader development looking at how early life experiences – from pre-school throughout early adulthood – could help build an individual’s capacity to lead effectively. So, what can parents do to foster leader development in their children? And, what can adolescents and young adults do to develop their capacity to lead?

Let’s look at some of the strategies for leadership development at each life stage.

Pre-School (Ages 0-5)

Leadership can be affected by the individual’s attachment with parents. A secure attachment – one that allows the child to explore the outside world knowing that they can come back to their parents to be comforted helps build healthy emotional and social functioning. There is research that shows that secure attachment in infancy is associated with ratings of leadership as adolescents and young adults. In the pre-school years, play is a primary means for developing budding leadership skills – learning how to cooperate with peers, resolve conflicts, and promote harmony in groups are critical skills learned early that affect later leader development.

Play offers the opportunity for even very young children to learn about various leadership roles and to learn the dynamics of social power and dominance. Parents and other caretakers can play an important role in supervising children’s play in order to help them to create positive leader identities (e.g., being the leader who helps others or promotes fair play) instead of more negative leader identities (e.g., being a bully or a selfish leader).

Childhood (Ages 6-12)

In the elementary school years, children learn to build positive relationships with their peers, and look seriously to parents, teachers, and other authority figures for models of leadership. What are some of the activities at this age that build leadership? Cooperative learning experiences in school – learning how to share, to help others, and play fairly – are all the building blocks of positive adult leadership.

At home, participation in household chores are important for both developing a sense of responsibility and can relate to positive ideals of leadership, such as being a “servant leader,” and working with followers to get things done together. Good relationships with siblings are also another “laboratory” for developing positive social skills.

Adolescence (Ages 13-18).

Throughout adolescence, experiences in the home and in school continue to develop the skills leaders need. One important area for leadership development occurs through extracurricular activities – participation in sports, volunteering, community service, and participating in clubs and associations. Adolescents have the opportunity to hold leadership positions in the classroom or in their various extracurricular groups and organizations.

Relationships with peers are also critical as research shows that more popular adolescents are more frequently viewed as leaders by their peers. It is important that parents, teachers, and other adult “mentors” play a part in reinforcing positive behaviors in these young, adolescent leaders, and discourage dysfunctional forms of leadership.

All too often, serious attempts to develop leadership begins in adulthood, but there is significant research support that suggests that leader development does, and should, begin early. Parents, teachers, and other important adults are responsible for ensuring that the leaders of tomorrow are well-equipped to lead, and lead well.


Liu, Z., Venkatesh, S*., Murphy, S.E., & Riggio, R.E. (2021). Leader development across the lifespan: A dynamic experiences-grounded approach. The Leadership Quarterly,32