What Makes a Good Leader?

It all started when I sat down one evening to watch the presidential debate. Almost immediately, I felt like I was watching a drama-filled reality TV show, filled with arguing, name-calling and so much yelling and interrupting that my head started spinning. My 7-year-old son came and plopped down onto the couch next to me and cheerfully asked, “What are you watching, Mom?” To which I, of course, replied, “The presidential debate.” There was a bit of a pause as he listened to the bickering ensue on the TV, and he then he looked at me with a somewhat puzzled expression and replied, “These are the people running for President?” I then proceeded to change the channel. Why, as a mom, was I feeling disgusted and almost embarrassed that my child was watching the presidential debate?! I mean, really…do I need to have this in my list of parent-restricted television shows!? Shouldn’t the debate be a tool for learning? On this particular evening however, I didn’t feel like it was very educational in the least. These are the people who are vying to be the future leader of our country and should be the role models for our children. We teach our kids that bullying, name-calling and screaming at each other is wrong, yet this is what gets all the media coverage?! What is THAT teaching them?

This whole scenario got me thinking. It got me thinking about who our children look up to and respect as “good” leaders and role models in their lives. I decided to do a little research experiment with a local second grade class. I wanted to know from their fairly innocent and hopefully still untainted 8-year-old perspectives, WHAT MAKES A GOOD LEADER. I didn’t want them to think about it in terms of the presidential election. Rather, I posed the following scenario to six different second grade classrooms, for a total of 110 students:
“Imagine that your teacher has given your whole class a very important assignment or task to work on together. And let’s pretend that if you get the assignment completed on time and correctly that the whole class will receive a fabulous prize! In order to get this task completed, your class needs to select one person—a leader—to be in charge. What should this leader be like? When you think about who this leader should be, just think about what CHARACTERISTICS or TRAITS this leader should have to help your class get the job done and done well!”

Each classroom discussed this scenario with their teacher, and each teacher provided me with a list of qualities that the children felt a good leader should have. The results were very interesting in the fact that some of these traits I had expected, but some I did not. I tried to group similar traits together and came up with the following most commonly stated characteristics:

BRAVE/STRONG/COURAGEOUS:
I think this was the category that surprised me the most, mainly because the kids were only discussing traits of a leader in terms of their second grade peers (not the President of the United States). But even so, every classroom talked about a leader as being someone who they felt was brave, strong and courageous. In this day and age of gun violence and terrorism, it is my belief that a good majority of the U.S. population is feeling this need for a strong leader…someone who they feel will fight for them and keep them safe. Perhaps, even subconsciously, our kids are experiencing these sentiments, too?

“A cowardly leader is the most dangerous of men,”-Stephen King, author

KIND/NICE/RESPECTFUL:
These were the traits that did not surprise me at all. Think about it…as adults, do we want to work for someone who is mean, rude or disrespectful? Not really, and neither do they. They want their group leader to be someone who is kind and respectful to the others in the group and can get along well with everybody.

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” –Dwight Eisenhower

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” —Jim Rohn, entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker

BELONGING/ENCOURAGING/HELPFUL:
These responses were very interesting because it shows how the kids think a good leader also makes the others in the group feel good, too! A good leader makes others feel appreciated, valued and inspired to do great things. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, there’s no “I” in “TEAM?” This is exactly what I thought of when I heard these responses. A leader is the glue that holds the team together and encourages them all to belong and share their ideas. And a team is only as good as its weakest link!

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”—John Quincy Adams

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”—Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club)

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”—Bill Gates

"The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things."– President Ronald Reagan

RESPONSIBLE/SAFE:
And of course, actions always speak louder than words. I think the kids feel that a good leader needs to set a good example and abide by the school rules just like everyone else. A leader can’t be someone who breaks the rules or partakes in unsafe behavior. A leader needs to be a good role model. They wouldn’t pick someone who gets sent to the principal’s office every week!

“He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.” —Aristotle

“It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself.” —Latin Proverb

HARDWORKING/SERIOUS:
The kids also expressed that the person who is ‘in charge’ of their group should be serious about their job and not ‘goof around.’ Nobody likes to be part of a group where one group member ‘sluffs off’ and doesn’t carry his or her weight. They want a hard worker.

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” —Vince Lombardi

“Earn your leadership every day.”—Michael Jordan

SMART/KNOWLEDGEABLE:
And of course, you want a leader who knows what they’re doing. You wouldn’t want a leader who doesn’t understand the task at hand or who does not have the experience needed to accomplish the end goal. The group puts their trust in this person to get the job done well, especially if they are ALL affected by the outcome.

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” —Abraham Lincoln

So, what can we take away from all this? Well, you would THINK that when we go to the polls that common sense would tell us to vote for the person who possesses most of (if not all of) these qualities. However, unfortunately, I think many of us have become influenced by the voice of others and hung up on too many other meaningless or irrelevant factors. Let’s get back to the basics. Let’s get back to what these 2nd graders are telling us make a good leader. Let’s get back to what past generations have told us about the great leaders of their time. Our President is a role model for our future generation, from which the future leaders of America are born. Do we want to show them that a bully can talk his or her way into the White House? That if you have a lot of money that you’ve got a competitive edge, no matter what your stance on the issues? Or that if you break the rules, that it doesn’t really matter? Think about whom you want YOUR child to look up to. Let’s get back to the basics of electing a leader of whom we can be proud.

In closing, I will leave you with one final quote from John F. Kennedy:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the RIGHT answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

About the Author...
Katie Kuenkel
Katie and her husband are proud parents of four busy kids (including twins!) and one mischievous puppy. In her free time, Katie enjoys waterskiing, basketball, boating, bowling, , photography, spending time with friends, and going to Daughtry concerts. ;)

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