At What Age Should our Young People Learn about Thought Leadership?

By Mindy Gibbins-Klein

Ask any young person what they want to be when they grow up and they will tell you ‘doctor’, ‘lawyer’, ‘footballer’, ‘pop star’ or something similar. It is very unlikely they would say ‘I want to be a leader’ and even less likely they would aspire to be a ‘thought leader’. They probably have never even heard the term.

Leadership is seen as something for older, experienced business professionals. But lately young people are being exposed to business owners and entrepreneurs much earlier in the media, social media and their own parents. They see how easy it is to start a business, and it can look very appealing when new companies attract millions in investment. The problem is that they only see the outcome and not the path to get there, nor do they know how to be a leader.

There are many instances in life and in business where people need to step up and be leaders. As I mentioned, when you start a company, at any age, you need to lead in many ways. Leadership qualities can show up from a very early age, at school in the playground, for instance. Some children are more naturally dominant, and they end up leading the other children in activities and games.

There are many ways to lead, of course, and it is not only those more forceful children who will grow up to be leaders in society. But it is harder for quieter or more introverted children (and adults!) to assert themselves in a practical way. That’s why I am a big fan of true thought leadership.

Every child however, and indeed every adult, is capable of thought leadership. I’m talking about developing bold new, disruptive, creative and exciting ideas that make a difference. It’s not just about having the idea, but being able to share it widely enough with the right people, and finally being recognised for that idea.

Thought leadership is a term that has been used to describe business leaders and academic professionals, so you would not normally think of children possessing that capability. However, the accessibility of videos and stories on the Internet has introduced us to some fascinating young people who can speak eloquently and have really interesting things to say. I must have seen dozens of examples of exceptional young people, along with adults, on Facebook, YouTube and TED talks. I am sure that if thought leadership were prioritised more in schools and in society in general, we would see more young people sharing their bold ideas.

So, what age is the right age to begin encouraging this kind of leadership? I would argue that it is never too early. The more adept our young people become at thinking things through, the better decisions they will make later in life. Knowing how to think about an issue or an idea, working through the logic and being able to make a point more persuasively are all incredibly important for public speaking, writing and general communications. If we want our young people to be better communicators, they need to become better thinkers.

Structured thinking and planning are taught at school, but having had two children go through the entire primary and secondary school curriculum, I have not seen it emphasised in the way that it could be. Debating skills are not something that every child has access to, so I’m always happy when I see it being taught and encouraged.

Increasingly I have found myself talking about thoughtful leadership, as something more refined than thought leadership. Thoughtful leadership requires a focus and intention that is rare. Not many people are willing to think strategically or perhaps they were not taught the skills when they were young. The extra time and care that goes into the ideas is one of the best investments you could make in yourself, your legacy and the world. The ideas that thought leaders are capable of could solve every problem that exists today. Therefore, I think it could be worth starting the discussion much earlier – like today.

Mindy has authored and co-authored eight books. She is also a regular contributor to the business press on thought leadership and raising your profile.Her latest book The Thoughtful Leader takes thought leadership to a new level.


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