Teaching Kids to Lead

The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India is an amazing experiment in empowering children and creating future leaders.  Founded in 2001, Kiram Bir Sethi and her team have created a unique learning environment where “common sense is common practice” and the overriding goal is to infect each child with the “I can” bug.  Besides developing a place where children are empowered to blur the lines between school and life, the unique curriculum has also yielded academic success.  Based on a benchmark study of 2,000 schools in India, Riverside beat the top 10 schools in math, science and english.

Even more exciting however, the school provides us with a great example of how to use simple, inspiring processes to driving dramatic change and tap into the multiplier effect.  In 2009, the school launched a contest called “Design for Change” where students are challenged to implement an idea to solve a problem they are passionate about. The only criteria for the idea is that it be of benefit to many people, look to solve an existing problem from a fresh prospective, and have the potential to see change in the lives of others as well as the students.  Using a powerful combination of inspiration and simplification, the contest reached 32,000 schools in India in its first year and has now spread to other countries.

So how did the school’s simple contest spread like wildfire and evoke such excitement and commitment?  While there are undoubtedly a host of reasons, here are a couple I think are most relevant for other leaders.  First, the contest uses a simple step-by-step process which leverages the school’s four phase development model; see the change (feel), be changed (imagine), lead the change (do) and spread the change (infect).  This model focuses on empowering the children to connect with an inspiring purpose, as well as puts the change process squarely in their hands.  The children not only have the autonomy to choose their team and brainstorm ideas, but they are responsible for designing a simple implementation plan and putting it into action.  Second, reflecting on the outcome of the change and sharing it with others is a required part of the process.  This allows the students an opportunity to cement their learning and at the same time infect others with their passion and results.  Finally, as the children share their stories they are able to be recognized by their community for their efforts.  Recognition received by parents and peers is a powerful motivator for future action.

This combination of inspiring with a purpose, driving engagement through autonomy and sharing stories of success creates intrinsic motivation in the hearts of each child and turns the competition into a powerful force for social change.  Similar to what we discovered in our work with front line supervisors and managers, effective change isn’t about the tools or techniques of process improvement.  Success is a function of how well you empower people to challenge their beliefs of what’s possible and build a change process which is simple to implement and share with others.  When people are inspired with a purpose and confident in their ability to shape the change, their creative spirit is unleashed and infused with the fuel of confident expectations.


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