As the world becomes more complex and unpredictable, leadership skills are becoming more highly valued. Many parents are thus looking for opportunities for their children to develop the skills of leadership, largely through participation in organised sporting activities and outdoor adventure programmes.
The qualities that people most often associate with leadership roles include personal confidence, high levels of motivation, leading by example, having good time-management skills, effective communication and conflict resolution skills, being able to accept responsibility and to delegate, having empathy and a willingness to follow.
Involvement in organised sporting activities has always been regarded as a good way for children to develop all of these. While research has not been able to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship between sports and leadership, it can be reasonably accepted that sport does provide children with an environment in which they can at least be encouraged to develop these skills.
'Sport is the best arena for helping children to learn leadership skills. You can't be an effective leader unless you fail. Sport provides the opportunity for kids to learn from their failures in a supportive environment where there are no long-term detrimental effects on their lives,' explains Brandon Huang, community manager at the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union.
While most sports encourage children to develop skills such as time management and goal setting, Huang suggests that team sports may provide children with the environment they need to develop the full range of leadership qualities.
'Team sports by their very nature require children to interact with teammates as well as their coach and support staff, which is something that individual competitor sports can't. This means that children have the opportunity to develop their communication and relationship skills in order to help build team cohesion,' explains Huang.
In team sports such as rugby, Huang adds, children get to practise leadership skills on an unconscious level by talking together about problems at matches, accepting better ideas from teammates, helping to organise or set up training equipment and being given direct leadership roles such as team captain, or leader of the backs or forward pack.
However, it is the coach's job to help children make the conscious connections between their actions in and around the team and concepts of leadership within the team, says Huang. Coaches need to play the role of mentor and provide opportunities for leadership skills to develop in individual children.
Ways in which effective coaches do this are by publicly recognising consistent displays of particular leadership skills, allowing children to take over some areas of responsibility, teaching collaborative learning whereby respect for themselves and their teammates is a core value, and introducing leaderships skills developmentally appropriate for the age group.
Leadership skills take time to develop and may not be demonstrated until adulthood. However, the starting point for all children is to get plenty of opportunities to develop a good level of personal confidence.
Outdoor adventure-based programmes, which are gaining in popularity, are a good way for children to build their confidence by overcoming some of their basic fears in a safe and supportive team-related environment.
Activities such as rock climbing or abseiling, ropes courses, kayaking, hiking and mountain biking provide individual challenges for children that, once conquered, provide a significant boost to their self-esteem and confidence.
'After completing our activities, children usually have the self-confidence to assert themselves more in other areas of their lives,' explains Yolande Yeh, programme director at Proactive Learning.
'During the pole jumping activity in our Super Camp programme, teammates support each other and communicate with each jumper to encourage them as they move closer and closer to their goal of jumping off the pole. This activity in particular is a metaphor for life, in that by pushing yourself or challenging yourself, you can achieve success and reach your potential,' Yeh says.
Proactive Learning runs Super Camp programmes for children aged nine to 17 that aim to give students the tools to succeed in school and in life. These include academic, life and leadership skills, all of which are interwoven throughout the programme to teach children the 'eight keys of excellence' - integrity, failure leads to success, speak with good purpose, commitment, ownership, flexibility, balance and a module called 'This is It!'.
One of the key elements of outdoor adventure programmes that is effective in developing leadership skills in children is the discussions on leadership skills that occur during a programme.
'The method of teaching we use is experiential,' explains Richard Gerrish, client liaison manager at Dragonfly Outdoor Adventure-Based Learning.
'It combines the children's direct experiences of the activities with reflection sessions that require them to discuss what they have experienced. We present theories of leadership and allow them to grow and develop skills through the experiences instead of by telling them what they should do.'