Early leadership experience can be very valuable. Selective colleges screen for demonstrated leadership experience, and studies have found that people with high school leadership experience are paid up to 33% more than those without it. This wage premium is similar to the one associated with a college degree.
However, we know little about what types of skills early leadership service may help to develop. Although adults who serve as leaders are observably different from nonleaders — leaders tend to have higher cognitive ability, more self-confidence, and more motivation or drive — we don’t know much about whether these differences arise because leadership service changes individuals or because these individuals are selected for their preexisting skills.
To investigate this question, we studied 378 seventh-grade students in a Chinese secondary school. Among the top 92 students, we randomly assigned classroom leadership positions to 46 of them. We tracked the students for 22 weeks and collected data on test scores, opinions, and social networks. The randomization let us isolate the effects of leadership experience from the effects of differences in personality, cognitive ability, or physical attributes.
In most Chinese primary and secondary schools, students sit in the same classroom with the same classmates over an entire semester, and teachers of different subjects rotate in throughout the day. The average classroom has approximately 50 students, and each has a set of student leadership positions. Two students serve in positions equivalent to class president and vice president; they represent the class, organize collective activities, and assist in maintaining order. There are also subject-specific leaders, such as Chinese delegates, English delegates, and math delegates, who distribute and collect homework and sometimes assist in grading. These positions carry considerable prestige, and some parents lobby strongly to have their children selected. Class leaders have more exposure to teachers and fellow students, who they must motivate as part of their responsibilities. In a separate survey among other Chinese students, we found that more than 60% of students expressed interest in one of these positions.
Typically, a teacher chooses the class leaders based mostly on academic merit. In our study, teachers gave us shortlists of the top two candidates for each leadership position, and we randomly assigned half of them to leadership positions. The other half constituted the control group. Teachers ranked their lists, so we were able to separately estimate the effects of leadership experience for top-ranked and second-ranked candidates. We measured their academic performance, confidence, perceived determinants of success, and popularity.
On academic performance, we found that after being appointed to a leadership role, students’ grades on midterm and final exams increased by 0.3 standard deviations, which raised their rank in the class by approximately seven percentile points. But the increase was only statistically significant for top-ranked candidates. Tests were anonymized to ensure there was no bias in grading.
We suspect that increased studying was mainly what led to higher test scores among this group, as they reported having to balance studying and leadership duties. There are several reasons class leaders may increase their study efforts. Perhaps they feared being replaced if they underperformed on the midterm, or maybe people perform better when others place higher expectations on them — what psychologists call the Rosenthal effect. In this case, class leaders may not have wanted to disappoint the teachers who appointed them, or they may have hoped to achieve future leadership appointments. Their higher profile in the classroom may also have made it more embarrassing to perform poorly on an exam.
We measured confidence through a series of survey questions and games. One question we asked each student was what they thought their rank in the class was. The overall average reported rank was above the 70th percentile, resulting in a strong “Lake Wobegon” effect — meaning everyone was above average. Among second-ranked leaders, but not top-ranked leaders, leadership experience increased their perceived rank, though not their actual rank, by approximately seven percentile points. We also had leaders role play a game where they could either contribute money to a public good or keep it for themselves. Students got the most money if everyone contributed, but each individual did best if they kept their money while others contributed. We found that leadership experience increased students’ willingness to “lead by example” and contribute first; second-ranked candidates were approximately 50% more likely to contribute first when assigned to leadership positions.
We surveyed all the students on the determinants of success to see whether their beliefs about the world were influenced by their own achievements. We asked them to rank the three most important factors in determining academic success among the following six options: effort, good teachers, parental fostering, innate talent, help from friends and classmates, and home study environment. If individuals suffered from “self-serving bias,” a bias toward skewing one’s beliefs to support one’s own interests, then we’d expect them to attribute success to their own efforts and failure to external factors. We saw that receiving a leadership position made a student more likely to rank effort as the most important determinant of academic success — and they were correspondingly less likely to credit teachers or parents as important factors.
Finally, we examined the effects of leadership on social networks and popularity. Students who served as leaders, particularly second-ranked candidates, reported having more close friends in the classroom, though they were not any more likely to be reported as a close friend by others. This suggests that others may try to curry favor with leaders, who misinterpret the social interest as genuine. However, in a hypothetical class election, first-ranked leaders received more votes from their classmates, implying a potential incumbency effect.
Two limitations of our study are worth noting. First, our data only covered outcomes measured within the same year as the leadership experience; we cannot speak to whether effects persist or materialize years later. Second, we only examined the effects of school leadership opportunities. Leadership opportunities in social, political, or workplace settings may well have different effects. Our study demonstrates that leadership service is not simply a signal of skills or popularity — it can have meaningful effects on students.