What Does a Leader Look Like in Childhood?

How good are you at identifying our early leaders? You may be too old to tell.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

Most people reading this post are probably adults.

If you are an adult, and I asked you to look at a group of kids and tell me which one of them is the “leader of the pack,” how well do you think you might do?

Now imagine you’re a psychology researcher who really wants to understand leadership early in life, even as early as childhood. How do I answer this basic question: Who is the kid boss?

Excuse me please, may I speak with the manager?
Source: JLTackett

The “leadership” personality trait

A personality trait identified in adults—social dominance—encompasses many leadership tendencies. People who score high on this trait are assertive, like to be the center of attention, prefer to give orders, and gravitate toward dominant, rather than submissive, positions in social groups. Social dominance is a major component of extraversion, distinct from (but often correlated with) other aspects of extraversion, such as tendencies to be warm, sociable, gregarious, and enthusiastic.

Research in adults suggests that this trait, sometimes also labeled social potency, ambition, or assertiveness, tends to be high in those in leadership positions, and facilitates one’s movement to higher positions in social hierarchies. Actually, we know a lot of things about social dominance in adults: We know that people tend to increase in social dominance across the lifespan (especially throughout early adulthood), that men tend to score higher on social dominance than women, and that people high in trait dominance are perceived as more competent (even when they aren’t—yikes).  

We also know that whereas people in leadership positions or positions of power tend to score higher on social dominance, the trait shows a somewhat complicated relationship with the other major aspect of extraversion, warmth. For example, when women behave in socially dominant ways, they often experience a variety of negative social consequences and may be perceived as violating closely-held gender norms. This is especially true when it is seen as precluding warmth, which we expect women to exhibit.

All of this is to say, when I started my journey of wanting to identify the “kid bosses,” I turned to the natural place for a personality psychologist: the trait of social dominance.

But a strange thing happened next.

As something of an expert in child personality, I’m intimately familiar with any and all childhood personality measures currently in existence (this may sound grandiose, but the child personality world is—tragically—tiny). And as I mentally ran through them all in my head (and checked my memory against the literature), I quickly realized: Child personality measures virtually never include the trait of social dominance. 1

So where are the kid bosses?

Seriously, who's in charge here?
Source: JLTackett

Where is the kid boss hiding?

In our research lab, we work mostly with child and adolescent participants. An important—critical—aspect of our data collection is obtaining informed consent (or assent) from our participants. When we train our research assistants in this critical task, one point we emphasize again and again is this: By virtue of being an adult and the participant being a child, you are in an inherent position of power over them.

This is a critical aspect of the consent (and broader research) endeavor because it can influence the extent to which children have full and free consent. For example, children may be more likely to “go along” with a research task because an adult is asking them to do it—making it extra important that we attend to their comfort and willingness, and remind them of their rights as often as needed throughout a study. (This powerful influence may be less effective over one’s own child outside of the research context—for example, when asking your own child to put the toothpaste cap back on the tube when they’re finished using it. For example.)

So, when I was puzzling over the missing case of “social dominance” in virtually every primary child personality measure I could recall, I wondered—is social dominance missing because adults just don’t see it?

In other words, if adults are in an inherent position of power (a.k.a. dominance) over kids, are they even able to see child leadership when it emerges?

Historically, child personality measures have been scarce. By this, I mean personality (or temperament) measures that were specifically designed to measure personality in kids. Those that do exist have been developed in a variety of ways, but there has been a heavy reliance on using descriptions provided by parents and teachers of children they know well. Although this approach makes sense, it also means that we’re virtually always relying on adults to tell us what they think is important about individual differences (or personality) in kids.

If there are differences between kids that are less important to adults, they would be less likely to show up in these child personality measures. If adults are already dominant over children, these characteristics may be less salient or even apparent to them, and less useful as ways to describe or differentiate the children in their lives. This would also suggest that, if we want to identify the kid bosses, asking the adults may not be the best approach.

What comes next?

What are the implications of the missing kid bosses in our child personality measures?

One implication is that when we do have data on child personality (Already a scarcity. Please, people, help us collect more data! Kids have personalities, too!), it’s unlikely that it will measure the specific early personality traits (i.e., social dominance) that are highly relevant for leadership potential and proclivities. (Although, other child personality traits still have a lot to say.) 

And that’s a bummer.

Another implication, though, is that there may be interesting reasons why adults don't use these characteristics to describe children. Maybe they don’t exist? You already know my biased opinion on this question, because I’m writing this blog. We’ll explore some of the evidence for the existence of early individual differences in social dominance traits in later posts.

Let’s assume they do exist. If so, then it’s a peculiar omission from our child personality measures. Do adults accurately recognize and identify them? If they do, can they see them as well as kids see them? Are they valued differently by adults and kids (peers)? How do we identify child and adolescent leaders—who do we ask, what data do we collect, are there creative ways they can be identified?

This is what we think about in our lab, and attempt to do in many different ways. We are far from knowing the best way to identify leadership in early life, though. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

1Here, I’m making a distinction between measures that were originally developed for adults, but are used in younger age groups. Which of course also happens.