Is your child a leader or follower?

Leaders and followers are not always polar opposites.
Leaders and followers are not always polar opposites. Photo: Getty

Nine year old Maddie strides into the classroom before the bell and immediately she is flocked by three or four girls. “Let’s go to the playground.” She announces and the other girls all nod and follow her running out the door.

Maddie is a leader. She has a natural charisma and confidence that others find likeable and are drawn to. It’s not that she is bossy or dominant, as her mum Nicole says she’s been that way since she can remember – “People are drawn to her like a magnet!”

“I remember when she was about three years old and starting kindergarten. She immediately took two girls by the hand, took them over to the doll house area to play, quietly informing them how the game was going to play out. I was shocked,” says Nicole. “I spoke with the teacher and almost apologised but she was quite happy with it. She said the children are usually natural leaders or natural followers”

It’s somewhat true. Naturally children tend to develop a hierarchy in the playground and classroom that often sees them fall into one category or the other. However, according to Clinical Psychologist Sally McCormack that is not always the case, leaders and followers are not always polar opposites.

“There are children that fall into either category but I think that there is actually a mixture as well. In some situations a child may come out as a good leader, but also be a good follower.”

This sentiment is echoed by many parents out there. Genevieve says her son is a great leader in the classroom but “when it comes to out of school activities he is more likely to be a team player.”

Mandy’s daughter who has just turned ten is mostly a follower. “She is just happy to go with the flow and not cause any conflict with her friends, yet at home being the eldest she comfortably takes on the big sister leader role to her two little brothers”, says Maddy.

This begs the question; are these characteristics more influenced by genetics or environment? According to Sally this is a hard question to answer. “I would say it’s more 50/50”, she says. “For example, in particularly strong leadership families such as political dynasties it has a flow on effect, which is partly innate and partly from the environment they grow up in.”

Many parents also have ill-conceived notions when it comes to labelling their children leaders or followers. Leaders are often seen as strong, confident and good role-models whereas many parents worry if their child is a follower concerned that they are shy and introverted. This isn’t the case. As Sally explains, there is more likely two types of personas within each category.


The Inspiring Leader vs The Dominant Leader

Inspiring leaders are good listeners, encourage and inspire others, consultative, take on a leadership role in a positive way”, says Sally whereas Dominant Leaders, “tend to be more bossy and less willing to see others’ points of view”. In the latter situation care needs to be taken to show the dominant leader better ways to lead with a more positive effect.

The Productive Follower vs The Submissive Follower

“Productive followers are happy to get in and get the work done. They listen to what is asked and know what is required. They always do what is best for the group in the most effective way”, says Sally. “They also thrive on being given direction.”

On the other hand the Submissive Follower is more likely to be happy going along with the flow to limit conflict. “They may be shy personalities, or be suffering from low self-esteem and confidence.” Explains Sally. Here it is the parent’s responsibility to build up their self-confidence so they know that is okay to trust their feelings and opinions enough to share them.

So how do we balance the behaviour?

What if your child leans towards more dominant leader qualities or the other extreme is too submissive? Sally explains it comes down to modelling the right behaviour, starting at home. “Often we forget as parents what strong role models we are so if we are dominant around the house you can’t expect them to be an inspiring type leader, so we need to show by example.”

Sally also suggests keeping the lines of communication open by talking to your child. “Ask questions, use examples and get them thinking”, she offers. “Talking through and using specific examples is the best way a parent can help their children in any situation?” This is particularly useful for the dominant leader. “Ask them how they could have handled the situation differently. How could they have made the outcome better for all involved?”

For those with a “submissive follower” the key is to build self-esteem. “The Submissive follower has close to zero self-esteem so what you need to do is help build their confidence in their own opinions, thoughts and feelings,” Sally advises. “Get them to help you make small decisions around the home such has helping choose what to have for dinner and supporting their decisions. Be encouraging and positive. Build up their ability to trust and value their own decisions and help them become a more of a “productive follower”.

Jodi is a freelance writer and mum of four girls.