Here's what Alan Nelson learned after teaching leadership courses for a good part of his life: Adults don't change much.
And adults in positions of leadership are often managers, but seldom leaders.
"Managers try to fix little things and maintain," said Nelson, a lecturer in business at the Naval Postgraduate School. "Leaders take charge. I realized as I got older that trying to train managers to be leaders was very difficult."
So Nelson, 54, began exploring the possibility of developing a program that would apply the principles of leadership training to young people.
Three years ago, Nelson quit his job at a publishing house, moved to Monterey and launched KidLead, an organization that helps identify leaders at an early age and teaches them skills needed to be good at the job.
"We started prototyping an executive-caliber program and age-sizing it," Nelson said. "We focused on preteens — they're cognitively developed, but they're still morally pliable. This is what we call our 10-13 window.
"I was jaded. I thought you can't teach them. But you can, if they have the wiring to lead," he said.
According to a theory by psychologist Howard Gardner, people are born with different types of intelligence: logical, linguistic, etc. Those who have interpersonal intelligence — those who are people smart — have a natural ability to learn leadership skills at a young age, Nelson said.
"The natural born 'influencers' are these kids who go to the principal's office more often than most, they're good at organizing games," he said.
KidLead trains people to identify children with leadership skills and help them hone 16 traits identified in the program as needed to make a good leader. Half of them are character-based, such as honor and responsibility, and half are skills such as communication and conflict resolution.
The curriculum is not just lecture-based, but includes activities aimed at making it easier for children to develop the skills.
After a few months of having KidLead at St. Timothy's Lutheran School in San Jose, Principal Gayle Renken said she can see a difference in students.
"Our kids are much more proactive about stepping up to take responsibility for things," she said. "At our fall festival, I made a blanket announcement, 'Anybody who can stay and clean up would be great.' Half an hour later I saw the mom of a fourth-grader who told me, 'I quietly wanted to slip out, but my son said "Ms. Renken said she needs help."' For a fourth-grade child to know that even they can be part of the solution, that's great."
KidLead spurred 14-year-old Kelly Forsha of Pennsylvania to take international action. When she was 12 years old, she launched Digging Wells For Hope, which raises money to build wells in areas where there is no drinking water.
Greg Lawson, executive administrator at Harker School in San Jose, said students there are benefitting from the KidLead program, though he said it isn't for everyone. Harker is on year three of using KidLead with students in fifth through eighth grades.
"We're giving these kids a bit more practical development and vocabulary of leadership to utilize with the skills and opportunities that Harker is going to give them," he said.
A corollary benefit of developing young leaders is a decrease in playground bullying, Nelson said. Because the children are being taught strong moral character, he said, they teach others to be more considerate and their peers are more amenable to listening to them than to adults.
Although his ideas have found acceptance in Thailand, Singapore and the Middle East, he has had a tougher sell in the United States. He believes the reason is a cultural emphasis on equality.
"We value equality so much, especially at the younger ages — we don't want to distinguish kids with special gifts and abilities," Nelson said. "People using our program for the most part are private schools who tend to recognize the gifting of children."
As the organization continues to grow, Nelson is focusing more on using his program to address larger social issues. Leadership development could help tackle problems such as obesity, drug abuse and nutrition, he said.
"It's really about social change and social innovation," he said. "We see this as means to an end."
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.