How Do Followers Become Leaders?
I have this theory, based on my years of teaching first graders science, that followers, at any age, will become leaders if given a chance. I know with further study, this theory may become a scientific law. If students are given the opportunity to individually discover and experience, they will build confidence not only in the ideas they test themselves, but also in the results they can achieve in actively trying. Now, if you’re a corporate type, don’t walk away, the theory, soon to be law, works for you, as well. I’ll get to that later, but for now, let’s think like first-graders.
If you have a class of first-graders, show them a mealworm, the larval stage of the dark-winged beetle; most pet stores have them. Ask students, as a class, to think about what a mealworm eats. Most likely one of the vocal leaders will say, “Meal, they eat meal!” Now, you could, as a class, leave it at that, and as a class brainstorm a few more possibilities, led by the few class leaders, or you could take a different path. Primary grades are a wonderful place for this, it gets a bit more difficult as students age, and due to the fact they may have developed pre-conceived notions of what they can do. I’ve found this in adults, too, so stick with me. So, let’s go a different way with this.
What if you said to those same first graders, as individuals, that they would be responsible for feeding some mealworms of their own? “What sorts of things would you feed mealworms?” Leave students to some individual brainstorming, at first, based on their own thinking and knowledge. See what they come up with. Certainly, you may get things like ice cream, candy, soda, popcorn, and maybe cereal. It might be that whatever the student likes might be what they think the mealworms in their care would like. In this way, everyone has ideas, and everyone has a chance to think, and share. That sharing can be kept a personal response from student to teacher, or as a response to the group, whichever works best for that particular group of individuals. You could also do a bit of both, and chances are you will.
What you’ll discover immediately is that you’ll get more responses, and those responses will come from more than those in the initial leaders’ group. That doesn’t make the new responders leaders, but it does open the door for them to be discovered by others as possible people to follow. This is big. Discovering that others have ideas, and talents at an early age, teaches a life lesson for observing those traits in individuals and in collaborative teamwork later—in school and in the boardroom.
A teacher thinking of all students in a classroom as possible leaders, rather than followers is where I’m headed with this. It doesn’t matter what the physical classroom looks like, right now, because that can change easily. Seats in rows changing to work groups won’t be a difficult move. The thing that is necessary is to think about the giftedness of each individual student, develop that, and the group that is the classroom develops, too.
When you have a group of students, thinking as individuals, even as first graders, you can really begin to ask experiential questions and not just simple, out of the text ones. You can ask, “What are the important parts of your day?” “What do you need to do each day?” Discovering those things will have students thinking beyond. They’ll think food, water, and warmth, caring, sharing, following, and leading by thinking—and maybe feeding mealworms. And if successful there, they’ll learn something about lifecycles, too—from egg, larva, pupa and beetle—and all over again. Imagine a classroom of leaders, researcher, scientists, dreamers, thinkers, and visionaries.
Which brings me to the most important point. Once started, leaders will want more leadership opportunities. Just as the simple mealworm feeding idea can become a yearlong project, your experiment in leadership can begin a lifelong leadership quest for your students. Now, that’s what I call success.
Each day, I talk with adults who have lost, or never had, the confidence to lead. They’ve either never led, or have lost the feeling of leading. While you can’t treat adults like first graders, realizing that some adults are still at that stage of leadership development needs to be considered. To move followers to leaders as adults requires patience, some teaching skills, and sometimes some very direct talk, but it can be done. The worse thing for a student or adult to lose is confidence. You can be the one to initiate it, or to restore it.
About the author:
Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology experience, as well as a blogger on all things education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.