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Volume 28, Number 1
January/February 2012

From Math Helper to Community Organizer

New longitudinal studies identify key factors in leadership development


Teacher Evie Stone stopped offering rewards to her students in order to encourage leadership.

Is the student who organizes tag during recess or chooses to help a classmate with math on track to be a senator, a CEO, or a community leader?

They may well be.

Behaviors like embracing novel experiences, supporting peers, even pestering parents for lessons can predict whether a child will emerge as a leader in adulthood, according to researchers who say they are the first to plot a pathway from childhood experiences to adult leadership. The research may also help educators encourage leadership—a commonly heralded “21st-century skill”—if teachers know what behaviors to look for and support, they say.

Theories abound about what makes one child develop into a leader and another not, says Ronald E. Riggio, Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College and editor of a special issue of the Leadership Quarterly, which last year published four studies of leadership development based on data going back to 1979. “There are these crazy ideas like pushy mothers or pushy fathers” feeding adult leadership success, he says, adding that research on leadership is often retrospective beginning with questions like, “What was Churchill’s mother like?”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.