Sometimes I tell people that I could beat the world’s fastest
runner in a race. They look at me and curiously wonder what I’m
getting at, as they quietly stare at my middle-aged physique. I
say, “I could beat the fastest person in the world — as long as I
had a big enough head start.”
Imagine if we gave all kids — our future pastors,
entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, stay-at-home moms and dads — a
15- to 25-year head start by training them how to be effective,
ethical leaders as preteens. The future of the church and society
depends on encouraging all kids to develop ethical leadership
skills while they’re still pliable.
After 25 years of pastoral ministry, including over 15 years of
training leaders and writing books and articles on the topic, I’ve
come to a conclusion about leadership: The best hope for developing
ethical, effective leaders is to train them during their preteen
I didn’t always believe this. I, like many, believed that
leadership is a role reserved for adults. You hear it in comments
to kids: “Someday you’re going to be quite a leader!” You
see it in how we develop influencers: Most formal leadership
training doesn’t begin until ages 25 to 35, when corporations
provide staff with assessments, coaching, and training. You notice
it in the research on leadership: Nearly all of it has to do with
Over the last few years, though, I’ve focused on learning about
kids in regard to leadership. And I’ve discovered that preteens
have an incredible ability to grasp leadership concepts and
demonstrate their leadership skills. In fact, this is the most
neglected area of leadership potential in the church today. Despite
many misconceptions, kids really are capable of true leadership.
Focusing on youth, specifically preteens, is the most effective way
to raise ethical leaders — so what better place to start than in
your children’s ministry?
Capture the Moment
There are four fertile years when kids are exceptionally
teachable and moldable as leaders: ages 10 to 13. I call this the
10/13 Window, and I believe these are the most critical years for
influencing our future leaders. That’s because this period is when
kids’ cognitive and moral development is growing and being
Cognitive Development — Kids’ cognitive
development is becoming increasingly complex during the 10/13
Window. Their ability to understand abstract concepts and reason
abstractly is in high gear. Leadership involves organizing people
toward a common goal to accomplish something together that they
couldn’t achieve as individuals. This ability requires a relatively
sophisticated capacity to understand and manage a variety of
factors. By age 10, most kids are developmentally ready to handle
this complex thinking and problem-solving, and they have the
emotional intelligence required to read others and know how to
effectively relate to them.
Moral Development — By age 14, our moral
development tapers off significantly; in other words, our
“hard-wired” ethics are fairly well-established. Kids with strong
character grounding in their formative years are far more likely to
make good ethical choices into adulthood. These years are the prime
time to instill the Christian values you want your young leaders to
The 10/13 window is a unique period when a child’s cognition is
sufficiently developed to learn sophisticated social skills such as
leading and his or her character is still pliable enough to be
shaped. The goal in this window is to teach character in the
context of leadership — in other words, to teach leadership that’s
ethical and Christ-centered.
Develop Kids’ Leadership Skills
Here are step-by-step guidelines you can use to develop
faith-focused leadership skills in your kids.
- Look for the leader in all kids. If you want
to intentionally grow leaders in your ministry, start with kids who
naturally exude social influence behaviors. Social influencers are
typically the most motivated and quickest to pick up leadership
skills because in reality, they’re already leading. But these kids
aren’t always who you think they are. Social influencers aren’t
always the “good” kids or the most committed. Sometimes they’re the
challenging kids who seem to rope the rest of your class into
misbehavior. Sometimes they’re the nonconforming fringe kids others
emulate and look up to. These kids by their very nature will
encourage other kids to try their hand at leadership opportunities
when they arise. (Check out the “Leader Like” sidebar for more
signs of social influencers.)
- Use experiential learning. Preteens learn
leadership skills best by experiencing leadership situations. In
your ministry’s programming, experiences, and lessons, create mock
projects where teams strive to accomplish goals, and let
individuals take turns leading their groups. Think
“mini-Apprentice,” where kids accomplish mental, micro, or macro
skill challenges under limitations. Debrief these experiences in
positive and constructive ways so everyone benefits and all kids
are encouraged to use their leadership abilities.
- Introduce kids to leaders. Have your kids meet
leaders in your church and community. Recruit adults in your church
who lead at work or elsewhere and who like kids. Most leaders are
honored to be interviewed or asked to come in and talk to kids
about what they do — and how they keep Jesus at the center of
their decisions and sensibilities. You may even arrange for a field
trip to a leader’s workplace to let kids experience how leaders
think, talk, and act.
- Create leadership opportunities in your ministry and
church. Find places where your kids can truly lead. Give
kids tasks that require solving problems with others. Allow them
freedom — within reason — to figure out how they can accomplish
the task on their own. Then provide constructive feedback. Allow
them to fail, to a degree, because people often learn best from
failure. Put kids in charge of planning an event, coordinating the
greeter team, or supervising the various roles in children’s
- Develop community leadership projects.
Challenge your kids to take on projects that go beyond the walls of
your church. For example, one group of kids got together to plan a
simple community service project. They decided to sell food and
drinks in a city park, with proceeds going to a child advocacy
agency. They coordinated the marketing, supplies, sales, and even
the adults needed for transportation. As a result, they presented a
$75 check to the directors of the agency.
Projects like this communicate to adults that kids have the
capacity to lead and succeed. They also get kids beyond the walls
of your church, modeling ministry to others — and in the end,
growing the leaders for today’s and tomorrow’s church.
Alan Nelson is the founder of KidLead (kidlead.com) and lives near
Monterey, California. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more tips on developing kids’ leadership skills, go to
Web Exclusives at childrensministry.com.
Seek out the social influencers in your ministry and
help these kids hone their leadership skills.
Here are 10 sure signs of a social influencer.
1. Other kids seek out the child’s opinion;
they ask what the child wants to do — and then do it.
2. Peers listen when the child talks.
3. The child initiates projects, has goals and
ambitions, and challenges the status quo.
4. The child has been accused of being bossy,
strong-willed, or opinionated.
5. The child is selected as class monitor, team
captain, or group leader by adults.
6. The child has been disciplined for being a
distraction in class or on a team.
7. The child negotiates well with peers and other
8. The child is good at organizing younger
children in activities or play.
9. The child isn’t prone to peer pressure but
rather stands up for his or her values.
10. The child is well-liked by others.