Using Competitions to Nurture the Leader in All of Your Students

Posted July 1, 2017 by Nicholas Wilkins

Humans are great at convincing ourselves to take the path of least resistance. That tiny voice in the back of our head encourages us to do so – to take the easy way out and avoid the stress of tough decisions. Why is it that we’re so adamant at running away from the hard, competitive situations? Perhaps one part of it is that we’re taught to avoid conflict and competition throughout our formative years.

No matter whether we’re in the school yard or the workplace, competitive situations are guaranteed to invade our lives. But while the presence of competition is universal, individual responses to it are not. Students can learn how to respond well to competitive situations rather than run from them.

Being involved in educational competitions at an early age allows young people to experience the friction of adult life. Better yet, they can learn about it in a safe environment. It won’t permanently damage their career or lifestyle, and whether they succeed or fall short, they’re developing as an individual.

Psychology studies carried out by Dr. Perry-Burney and Dr. Baffour Takyi at the University of Akron in 2002 showed that students involved in competitive activities displayed higher levels of self-confidence and academic achievement —qualities we associate with leaders and innovators. In fact, many studies have shown that competitions nurture many of the characteristics that companies are looking for in new hires as they struggle to find good managers for their teams.

As we researched more into competitions and how students respond to them, we got to thinking about one critical question:


What should teachers and parents look for in a competition to help nurture leadership qualities in their students?

There’s a lot of evidence that participating in competitions early on can help strengthen the characteristics that we generally associate with good leadership, but we wanted to understand this a little better. So we caught up with Dr. Jeffrey Yergler, Chair of the Golden Gate University undergraduate management department, and CEO of the Integer Leadership Group.

Jeff has worked with CEOs and other C-suite executives from around the world helping them understand how to be better leaders and improve leadership development in their teams. We asked Jeff how early participation in academic competitions could impact the development of future leaders.

“Leadership is fundamentally about influencing others to move toward and reach a common goal,” said Dr. Yergler. “Competitions include influencing, collaborating, goal setting, and working collectively to move toward a specific target quicker or more efficiently than others. So it’s natural that participating in competitive programs early on can help instill the qualities we want in strong leaders later in life.”

Some of the most effective leaders are those who are passionately committed to reaching a goal and who know how to bring others along with them. Effective leaders tap into their unique skill sets to create a coordinated effort to achieve a goal. Competitions have a tendency to cultivate leadership skills in a way that other experiences will not because they put the right kind of pressure on the leader to perform. No student is destined to become a leader any more than the next. Individuals who rise as leaders have simply spent more time refining the relevant skill set (and often less time avoiding competition).

But of course, not every competition is designed to help develop leadership skills. So we ask Dr. Yergler what he thought we should look for in a competition if we want to help our students develop as leaders.

“First, look for a competition that provides feedback to its participants as often as possible. You can’t learn if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong,” said Dr. Yergler. “Also, it’s important that the competition is team based and requires divergent skills, backgrounds, and talents. This will help students learn to manage different personalities and types of thought to get to their goal.”

And finally, Dr. Yergler says, “look for competitions that highlight the ‘problem-solving’ aspect of the challenge. Employers are constantly looking at how new employees can solve problems along the way, and having leaders than can organize teams around particular problem solving practices is critical to many industries.”

Most importantly of all, “Just do them! Get involved early and often – and in more than one type of competition – to practice leadership in many different situations that competitions throw your way!” Dr. Yergler says.

By participating in competitions early on, students learn to stop accepting setbacks and aim for something better. Encouraging our students to participate in educational competitions is an investment in the future, and may be the best way to strengthen true leadership qualities in the next generation. If we can’t shield them from competition indefinitely, let’s introduce them to it sooner and help them understand how to respond well to competitive situations.