Jennifer L Tackett Ph.D.

The Game Changers

The Search for Young Leaders Continues

As we continue the investigation, we ask: Are they hiding in the clinic?

Posted Jan 24, 2020

Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

As a psychological scientist who wants to study “kid bosses”—or, early leaders—a helpful first step would be figuring out where to find them.

When I first started down this road of wanting to understand early leadership—how leadership emerges in early life, what it looks like, and how it develops (and how we may nurture or facilitate that development), I started with a place I felt at home: personality psychology.

More specifically, I went to a place I knew well—personality trait psychology (the most popular trait model being the “Big Five”)—in part because I knew that traits were a scientifically established way to describe what adult leaders look like. Adult leaders, in particular, are often high in the trait of social dominance, which reflects characteristics like being assertive, the desire to lead rather than follow, and a preference for being the center of attention.

Do child leaders possess a similar set of characteristics? My first steps down this initial path left me stumped. Child personality trait measures, by and large, don’t even include the trait of social dominance. Why on Earth could this be?

Well, I have talked about some of my guesses, and my best answer is that I’m still trying to figure it out. Because, really, isn’t it easy to imagine (even perhaps identify a real-life example of) a 10-year-old who is assertive, more of a leader than a follower, and is comfortable—even most at home—being the center of attention?

No, no. Of course not. I can’t imagine any children like that.

Hitting a dead-end (although one that resulted in plenty of new scientific questions, if not answers), I turned to the other world I live in: I looked to the clinic. Could the kid bosses be hiding there?

Traces of the Kid Boss in the Clinic

I wear many hats as a psychologist, but one is that of a clinician. My professional training and most of my research have focused on behavioral and mental health problems in youth.

I have a lot to say about potential connections between things we study as child clinical psychologists and the early seeds of youth leadership. But to start, I want to say: What’s missing in the child personality literature is all over the clinic.

When we try to break down what early leadership looks like, it gets complicated fast. Part of this is because adult leadership researchers are still debating what they think the key components of leadership are. But even if we start with social dominance, for example—assertiveness, lead-not-follow, a center of attention—it’s easy to come up with lots of examples of these characteristics in youth, from a clinical perspective.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a childhood disorder characterized by argumentativeness, irritability, and resistance to authority. ODD is an official diagnosis in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. ODD is really common (maybe 1 out of 10 kids meet criteria at some point). Interestingly, unlike other “acting-out” disorders, ODD is pretty common in both girls and boys (perhaps particularly interesting if we consider gender differences in leadership in later life, where men greatly outnumber women, hmm).

A provocative argument could be made that ODD, at its root, is really about leadership. Youth meeting diagnostic criteria for ODD don’t like to follow orders from authority figures, they push back against parents and teachers, they make their own rules—they are assertive, they are leaders-not-followers. By definition, the diagnosis of ODD is about bucking authority and upending hierarchical social structures. A reversal of power, a flipping of who’s the boss.

Relational aggression is another place we see some of these leadership-relevant tendencies emerge as early as childhood. Relational aggression is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis, at least according to the DSM, although my lab has produced a lot of data that suggests it looks an awful lot like one.

Relationally aggressive behavior, in contrast to physical aggression (hitting, kicking, using a weapon), involves aggressive acts in which the aggressor harms the victim by damaging the victim’s social status or personal relationships. Common methods of relational aggression include social exclusion (“Everyone is invited to my party but you”) and malicious gossiping (“OMG, he’s a total loser; don’t you know what he did at lunch yesterday?”). Relationally aggressive youth use their social power to influence others (as we might expect a leader to), but do it in ways that can be incredibly harmful.

When we look at the core components of some of these things we study as child clinical psychologists (because these behaviors, at clinical levels, cause substantial impairment and can have far-ranging negative consequences), it seems quite clear that certain features overlap with what we might look for in budding leaders.*

But Why Are the Kid Bosses Hiding in the Clinic?

Given the peculiar absence of social dominance in child personality measures, we then wonder why these features show up in our clinical measures—our measures of problem behaviors.

Could it be that we are pathologizing early leadership? Labeling it as a problem that should be treated?

Perhaps. But it’s certainly not so simple as that.

When these problems enter the child clinical domain, it’s because they are causing problems. By definition. So maybe the question we should be asking is, where do we find these leadership characteristics in kids when they’re going right?

At any rate, finding them in our child clinical domains does help us answer a pretty fundamental question: Does leadership even exist in childhood? The answer is clearly: yes. Many of these fundamental aspects of leadership behaviors, at least in the social dominance sense, are clearly present in kids, even in toddlers!

An even more provocative question, and one I’m spending a lot of time on, is: If these adaptive leadership characteristics are present in the kids we see in the clinic, how do we help them leverage these as strengths rather than problems?

It may require a fundamental shift in our thinking about kids’ “problematic” behaviors. And the consequences of such a shift could be enormous. Maybe a good place to start is by opening our minds about where the early seeds of youth leadership may already be showing themselves to us.

*And there are more examples that are beyond the scope of this post—particularly if we turn to the personality disorder literature and think about the early antecedents of things like narcissistic personality. We know these traits emerge in early life, are measurable in kids, and likely relate to some of the things we consider when we think about leadership (and there’s certainly an extensive literature on narcissism in adult leaders). More about this later.