Is leadership a dangerous quality for Orthodox children?
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Teacher and business coach Tatiana Valerievna Iostman reflects on what leadership abilities are, whether an Orthodox individual needs them and how to develop them in a child.

A story of misunderstanding

Some time ago, on the social networks I came across a heated discussion of the following issue: should Orthodox Christians cultivate leadership qualities in their children, or is it a terrible spiritual trap. It was started by an advertisement offering paid weekly courses for children, and then the discussion turned to how it is incompatible with an Orthodox upbringing.

I have something to say on this topic since I am engaged in the development of leadership qualities both in my main job (I am an expert in project management and I teach it to people), and as a teacher (my husband Ivan Iostman and me have been leading scout group “Spolokh”), and as the mother of my children (I have four of them, the eldest is 29, the youngest is 14).

So, it seems to me that all this controversy that has flared up among church-living people about cultivation of leadership qualities is based on a misunderstanding, on a failure to comprehend what leadership is. They believe that a leader is a power-hungry individual using some manipulative techniques to subjugate people and force them to act in their own selfish interests.

Immediately, I remember cat Matroskin with his famous phrase “Collaborative work for my benefit, it unites”.

Yes, each of us has encountered unpleasant examples of this kind of leadership. Sure, such leadership is incompatible with Christian piety. 

But in reality, leadership is something else entirely.

Who is a leader?

Leadership is the ability to organize people for positive activities, and, as a rule, without direct benefit to themselves.

Accordingly, a leader is an individual capable of analyzing a situation where they find themselves, weighing their capabilities and understanding why and where they are going to lead people.

In other words, they are capable of goal-setting.

But in addition, a leader is capable of making decisions and assuming responsibility.

However, they would not succeed, people would not believe them and would not follow them if they have no moral core inside them, it means, a specific set of rules to be followed by an individual unconditionally. If we talk about a Christian leader, the biblical commandments and, more broadly, Christian morality would be such a core for them. If they follow them sincerely, in a difficult situation they would feel the moral right to make a decision, to lead people. No pressure, no coercion. And people would follow them because they see: their words do not differ from their actions.

In the meantime, you should understand: a leader is not the same as a boss, head. There is the concept of a formal leader, namely someone who seems to be responsible for leading people to a certain goal by the nature of their activity, and an informal leader, namely someone who can still organize people to perform some activity without being officially granted any kind of power.

It is far from always when a formal leader is an actual leader. Being an expert in project management, I would say that working with people is just one of ten areas of expertise that a project manager should have. And leadership trainings that we conduct by teaching people project management are by no means learning a set of manipulative techniques. We talk about what a predisposition to leadership is, what qualities a leader shall have, what methods of leadership exist. But if an individual fails trying to be a leader, it does not mean they are unable to manage a project. In this case, they simply need to find an informal leader in their team who would unite people and lead them in the proper direction.

Why would a Christian need leadership abilities?

In my opinion, a Christian needs such abilities even more than a non-religious individual. Because if you are really a Christian, not by name, but by essence, you must live like a Christian, follow the commandments, do deeds of love and mercy, and show your faith to others by these deeds.

But our life is arranged in such a way that deeds of love and mercy most often have to be done not individually, but by a group. Each such case is a project that brings people together.

It also applies to very extreme situations, such as explosions, fires and floods, and situations that look ordinary but are not daily, still. It means, for example, to raise money for a surgery on a sick child, to protect an individual from false accusations, to help a troubled family, to repair a collapsing rural church, to arrange a summer camp for children from the parish, and so on. Sure, not only believers are engaged in such activities, but others do that at will, and for a Christian it is abnormal, unnatural to avoid such things. A Christian must help people, which means that they need both the ability to work in a team and the ability to organize people for a common activity. That is a leadership skill.

Is leadership skill innate, or can it be taught?

It can hardly be said that all people are equally gifted with the ability to lead. In the same way, not everyone is equally capable of mathematics, music, sports. Each of us has seen people whose spontaneous leadership skills have manifested since kindergarten. And, by the way, it doesn’t always end well. When it comes to incompatibility between leadership and morality, spirituality, most likely, they mean exactly such spontaneous leaders without moral brakes who either turn into social predators, or their fates develop tragically.

However, in most cases, with proper development, leadership skills can be developed successfully. Moreover, the earlier you start, the better the result will be.

Where is a proper place to develop leadership qualities in children?

I would begin with saying that any courses, whether paid or free, are completely useless here. Leadership skills develop only in practice, in a child’s natural environment, and develop over time, namely it takes years.

What does natural environment mean? First of all, it is a family. But not any family, only those with many children. In such a family, the parents take turns putting their children in a situation where they have to organize something, bring someone somewhere, figure out how to arrange a family holiday, make a non-standard birthday present for one of the family members... well, just cook a dinner for the whole family. But in a family with one child, it would not be efficient. As the saying goes, it is impossible to teach swimming if the pool is not filled with water. Even if the parents have absolutely correct understanding of what true leadership is, they cannot teach it to a child without practice. And other children are needed for practice. If the parents say: “Maybe you arrange a city tour for mom and dad”, “Maybe you guide us in cleaning the apartment” or something like that, then it would be a one-time game since the parents would be the actual leaders anyway.

What is another possible environment in addition to the family? In the old days it was a yard, there was a yard culture. Yard companies were of different ages, there were people with different interests, and therefore leadership qualities could be cultivated there. But now there is no yard environment, at least in large cities.

What else? School? Alas, an ordinary mass school is usually not a proper environment where leadership qualities are cultivated. Rather, on the contrary, children are under pressure there: do not stick your head out, nobody asked you, your opinion does not interest anyone here. Being a leader in a mass school can be dangerous at times. Sure, there are other schools, private, author’s, where the atmosphere is different, however we discuss the most common alternative.

So, the only (besides a large family) suitable environment for the development of leadership qualities is an informal team of children.

Informal meaning that a child is not obliged to go there, it is done exclusively voluntarily. Sports sections, art, theater and literature studios, children clubs, scout groups. In church parishes, there are Sunday schools and various projects existing under them (hikes, pilgrimage trips, summer camps, and so on). Also, if we talk about the church environment, it is, for example, “Brotherhood of Orthodox Pathfinders” or organization National Organization of Volunteers “Rus” for children. In general, some community of children with adult leaders, where a child goes voluntarily, where they are interested.

It is very important to make such a community open. It means, parents must understand what their children do there, must understand that the charter and rules of that community correspond to their own inner views. And to understand it better, you need to take at least some part in their life yourselves. After all, it can be completely transparent, open, but if you just delivered the child there and picked them three hours later, how would you understand if it is a thing you approve?

Which communities are best suited for developing leadership skills?

There are all kinds of communities. There could be those where children cultivate valuable skills, develop personally, creatively, physically, but it does not apply to leadership qualities. For example, a sports section, where a group includes children of the same age. In that place, the maximum of what is possible is a coach offering a child that is more prepared, more successful in sports to develop less successful ones, and it could be useful for such a child, but still, most children would not have such an opportunity there.

But if such a community has diverse forms of activities, if its work is aimed not only at themselves, but also outside (for example, a theater studio for children arranges performances for orphanage children), if a team has children of different ages, then this is the most suitable environment for the development of leadership qualities.

Why do children need it?

Until now, we have only talked about the motivation of parents, but after all, children should also be motivated to develop leadership skills. Otherwise, nothing would work.

There are usually two such motivations. The first one is a pursuit of personal success. Any child wants to be praised, to have adults proud of them. So that the leaders thank them for their help, cite them as an example. For Christian parents, there is, of course, a reason for concern here, namely how to prevent the desire for success transforming into a passion of ambition, but after all, ambition arises not because of success itself, but because of a twisted system of values, when success is treated as an absolute criterion. When the parents have a correct attitude to the achievements of a child, this danger is weakened.

The second motivation is the desire for not personal, but rather general, success. “We did it!” (cooked dinner for everyone, published a newspaper, shot a short film, and so on). But, for example, if the task is to publish a newspaper, it means there must be a child among children who organizes the process and leads everyone to the result. It means, again, leadership skills are needed.

Reflection inside the family

In general, the development of a child’s leadership qualities happens in the following way: in an association for children, leaders simulate situations where they have to take over some part of ​​common work, organize other children. And at home, in the family, the child tells their parents about it, shares their successes and failures.

And this stage of speaking is extremely important. It is called reflection, and such reflection in general shall become the rule of life. If I send a child to an association for children, I must show them that I am interested in what they are doing there, I must encourage them to talk about what succeeded, what failed, what was good, what was bad, what should be done next time in a similar situation to succeed.

It is important to remember that reflection is introspection. The parents should ask careful questions, and not overwhelm the child with advice and recommendations.

What kind of questions should you ask? Say, we discuss a small child, an elementary school child, you can invite them to draw themselves in a situation where they had to lead, draw other children, and ask questions gently in the process of such drawing: did they understand what needed to be done? Did you understand that yourself? And if they didn’t understand, why didn’t they ask? Maybe they were scared that they would be laughed at? Or they were scared of scolding? Or were you sure you understood everything? Our goal is for the child to realize for themselves the reasons why something succeeded, something failed, while answering such questions.

But here the parents need to have great patience, to show intuition. And most importantly, not to make diagnoses, not to pass verdicts, but to understand what caused a success or failure.

Interaction with heads

Sure, parents should have a complete mutual understanding with the leaders of an association for children on this issue. Relationships should be open so that doubts could be expressed and do not lead to sad consequences for children.

I’ll tell you how it works in our scout group “Spolokh”. On purpose, we discuss all this with parents, and first of all with those who participate in our group projects. For example, we go on a multi-day hike. On the very first day, we find time to gather the parents (and, if possible, we do it before the hike altogether) and explain simple things: all our children are common and all adults are common. It means that any child can turn to any adult for help, for advice, and any adult helps not only their children, but others as well. We explain that the easiest way for us is to do everything ourselves, to put up tents, light a fire, cook dinner... But we should not do it, because our task is for children to learn how to do it themselves.

For example, we explain that if you are supervising a group of children tasked with making breakfast, your task is to work for the child who shall be the leader in this situation. You should talk to them, take them aside and ask:

“I will work with you. Please tell me, what are we preparing today?”, “What food do we need?”, “Do we have all of this?”, “Where do we start?”, “What is everyone’s task?” It means, by asking leading questions, you help the leading child understand the process better, and in no circumstances you allow them to push all organizational matters onto you. Then, you say: “Now let’s go to the guys, and you will say what we discussed. It means, you say: guys, we will cook this and that, we have this amount of time, we need to start here, at the same time we need to do this and that. You will task everyone with what they can do, namely small kids should not, for example, kindle a fire. And when we have everything prepared, do not forget to thank everyone for their contribution to the common cause.” And we instruct adults that all this must be said as politely as possible, with respect for the child who has to become a leader now.

We need mistakes!

Once again: all work on cultivation of leadership qualities in a child comprises actual practice and competent support. Adults think over the situations where these leadership skills would be developed, help with unobtrusive advice in the process and help to reflect afterwards.

In the meantime, a child would go through a school of hard knocks, make mistakes. It is normal! Moreover, a child shall be allowed to make mistakes, the only exception are life-threatening situations. In all other cases, mistakes are necessary!

Until the child feels their mistake, the process of developing leadership qualities is impossible. A leader must be able to both accept failures and draw conclusions from them.

And here an appropriate parental reaction to the failure of children is very important. It is necessary to avoid two extremes, namely, you are not allowed to scold children for mistakes, but you also should not say that this is nonsense, deserves no attention. The golden mean is to help a child understand the reasons of a mistake and how it could have been avoided.

Here’s another very important thing: a mistake and fault are not the same thing. If you confuse one with the other, in a situation when someone shows a child their mistake, they would perceive it as if they were accused of being bad. And then, there would be a protective reaction of the psyche, namely tears, tantrums, depression. Therefore, the form and intonation of the conversation about mistakes is extremely important. In no circumstances should one draw conclusions about a child’s personality, their human qualities, from their mistake. Sure, it applies to everything in general, and not just a specific topic of cultivating leadership skills.

* * *

In conclusion, I would like to recommend a book that shocked me even in my pioneer childhood. It is book “How to lead” by Anatoly Lutoshkin. Someone gave it to me to read in the fourth grade, and it was an illumination for me, I began to understand what I lack as a leader, and how to develop these qualities in myself. The book has gone through several editions, now it is easy to find it on the Internet. It may seem that there is a bit too much pioneer and Komsomol phraseology (how else could it be since it was released in the 80s of the previous century?), but all this is filtered out easily, but the essence remains.