Do you want to raise children who will one day become great leaders? Science says this approach matters more

Great teams and great companies are built by great leaders.

That’s why Google devoted significant time to identifying the key behaviors of its best team managers, research that allows the company to determine whether someone is a great leader in less than five minutes.

So how can you help your children learn to be leaders? (After all, like mine Inc. Colleague Bill Murphy writes, there comes a point in some people’s lives when their aspirations for their children begin to rival or even exceed their aspirations for themselves.)

And, as a result, how can you help your employees become better formal and informal leaders?

For one thing, tell them they can fail: Research shows that too much encouragement can make achievement less likely. For another, delay majoring: Research shows that early career “specialists” move into an earnings lead after college, but that later “specialists” make up for the head start by finding jobs that better suit their skills and personalities.

Most importantly, give them more rope.

In a 2019 study published in Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers assessed the leadership potential of over 1,500 teenagers. They surveyed peers, teachers and parents to assess whether each individual was seen as a good leader. They identified individuals who actively participated in leadership roles. They measured each person’s level of self-esteem and confidence in taking on leadership roles.

And they asked the teenagers to rate statements like “My parents often stepped in to solve life’s problems for me” and “Growing up, my parents watched my every move.”

You can probably guess the result: Children with overprotective parents were perceived by other people as having less leadership potential.

And, since how people perceive us often affects how we behave, they were less likely to actually to be in leadership roles.

Clearly, correlation is at play. Research shows that people with overprotective parents tend to have lower self-esteem and are less likely to seek leadership roles. But the effect is also the cause. Other studies show that teams tend to choose charismatic, confident and extroverted people as their leaders. People who are perceived as less confident and outgoing are also less likely to be chosen for leadership roles, even though they might have excelled in those roles if given—or given—the chance.

Put it all together, and children with overprotective parents are less likely to seek leadership roles—and their teachers and peers are less likely to select them for leadership roles.

Which means—since great leaders are made, not born—they can’t learn how to be better leaders.

The Problem with Micromanaging

Children of parents who are over-attentive, over-protective and tend to do things for their children rather than waiting for their children to handle appropriate tasks and situations on their own are at a disadvantage later in life. Since they rarely try, they tend to develop fewer problem-solving skills. Their sense of independence, autonomy and responsibility tends to be lower.

So do the chances that they will step into formal or informal leadership roles. After all, if I don’t feel capable of “leading” myself, why would I think I can lead other people?

The same goes for your employees. Micromanage and you stifle your employees’ sense of responsibility, authority, and autonomy. Open whenever there’s a problem and you limit your employees’ ability to apply their skills and creativity.

If your employees agree with statements like “My boss often steps in to solve problems for me” and “My boss directs my every move,” then you are an overprotective leader.

Of course, problems can be fixed faster. And people may be more likely to do things exactly the way you want them to.

But that means your employees miss out on opportunities to become better formal and informal leaders. They miss opportunities to make — and learn from making — important decisions. They miss opportunities to motivate and inspire other people. They miss opportunities to take quick, decisive action and learn from the outcome.

In short, they miss the opportunity to become better employees.

Give your kids a little more rope. Give your employees a little more rope.

They — and you — will one day be glad you did.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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