“Leader” implies a person at the top giving orders and guiding a group to a goal: a football quarterback, a president at the podium, or even a caped crusader. Or we envision Martin Luther King Jr., whose voice and passion mobilized a crowd.

In private, however, the civil rights leader was quiet, writes King biographer Peter Ling. From the advent of King’s career in 1955, when he led the bus boycott in Montgomery, to his assassination in 1968, “King had a remarkable ability to get people who would otherwise be constantly feuding to work together,” writes Ling.

We must teach kids that leadership has little to do with being “in charge.” It involves camaraderie and creation: listening to peers, supporting them when they stand up for themselves, and conjuring up new ideas that challenge existing ones. Kids will learn this by doing – by experiencing teamwork at school and through other activities.

King raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement, and he shows that one individual has the power to spark innovation and change in others. It is creating that change in others that makes leadership different from management, where one gives orders or provides structure, writes Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging.

Leadership is the capacity to initiate a future different from the past, says Block. The essence of leadership is not a type of personality or speaking style, and a child’s grades, popularity, or interests don’t determine his ability to lead. A person naturally possesses what it requires, says Block. To lead is to communicate, collaborate, and create.

Every child, then, can be a leader. Yours may not be enrolled in a structured program, but there are other ways she can build leadership skills:

  • Befriend an “Experience” Mentor: Becoming a leader means learning by doing – to be shown rather than instructed. There are programs out there, such as Friends for Youth, that pair younger students with older ones, but your child can also benefit from more informal training from a family friend who’s a photographer, or a relative who works at an animal hospital. In a darkroom or at the vet, your child will see and do, rather than skim a textbook. The excursion introduces real-world settings, which encourages her to share her discoveries with peers.
  • Cultivate a Vision: As King declared, “I have a dream.” A leader can visualize his future, or the end result of a project. Read to your child, even stories from the newspaper, and ask him what he sees when he hears your words. Visit your library’s storytelling hour or listen to talk radio in the car, too, to foster imagery in his mind. Leaders have vivid imaginations.
  • Be Her Own Advocate: Treating your child as a decision-making individual – offering options and challenges – is a way for her to think for herself and articulate reasons for her choices. Hold her accountable for the decisions she makes. This builds communication and listening skills, both pivotal for group work, and boosts critical thinking.
  • Channel Creative Energy: Enroll your child in a drama class. Extroverted children will jump at the chance to hone public speaking and artistic collaboration skills, but don’t rule out the shy child: theater may be an empowering outlet.
  • Join A Unique Kind of Team: If your child isn’t enthusiastic about joining the Boy Scouts, try less obvious alternatives for leadership building: a bowling league, a choir, or zoo volunteering. He can undertake an activity solo, or join with a buddy. The key is introducing something different to your child, so he can carry new ideas to his classmates.

The main thrust of all these ideas is that in working together and sharing knowledge, your child will learn to exhibit true leadership.