Children on Leadership

Remember those long summer days when you were a child? They seemed endless. They were so wondrous. We could not to wait to get out of bed and get going. So many amazing things to experience.  Look at that caterpillar about to blossom into a beautiful butterfly. Wow, so many stars above. I wonder, who lives up there? Can they see me? Look at those ants all pitching in to carry that morsel to their winter hideaway. Look how hard they are working. Back then, you were present to every moment. Your brain was like a sponge and just could not get enough. You were a curious explorer. You took nothing for granted.  Everything had its own nuance, even if you had experienced it before. Before was before. Now is now…  That, my friends, is the reason why those days seemed endless. Why you experienced your life fully. So what happened? You lost your presence. Your life became a series of habits and rituals. Days, weeks, and years just became one big blob. Melting into each other. You wake up, put on your clothes, and the routine starts. You hardly notice what you are putting in your mouth when you eat. You have become a slave to your smart phone which dictates to you what you should experience, think, and feel.  You wind yourself up and go about your day robot-like until your battery runs down and you fall into bed exhausted, hardly noticing who is next to you.

Lesson #1 – Children and great leaders are completely present.  Leaders need to call on their child-like curiosity. Never mind the start of the year strategic plan. What is the present telling us? Am I checking with the people in this room to see if there is new information? Do they feel comfortable telling me what they think?  How am I coming across right now? Is this the presence I want right now?  What should it be? What am learning and feeling?

In my experience, leaders who are in their own bubble and are driven by routine, history, controlling the future, and have lost their child-like wonder and thirst for learning will, in the longer term, underperform.  On the other hand, those that are present exhibit superior listening skills, are self-aware, and can detect current opportunities and how to leverage them. They understand the foundational principle of great leadership – “the only things I can lead are those that that I am present to”

Be present – the way you used to be when you witnessed that caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

Lesson #2 – Children and great leaders start with trust, positivity, and love. Remember the laughter.  The one that came from the bottom of your heart. The one the lasted for ever. When you and your friends used to sit and talk about you and them.  And you liked hanging out with each other because you were really close. You knew each other. You were a team. You brought joy, laughter, fun, possibilities, and sometimes pain, but always love to one another. You trusted your friends. You told them things, and they told you stuff. And through that camaraderie you helped each other grow and know what it is to trust and connect and do some amazing things that you could not do by yourself. You saw the glass as half full. You started each day with positivity which gave you unbounded energy to run and play all day long. When you went to bed you were tired, but it was that good kind of tired. You know the one that has you fall into a deep sleep with a smile on the face. You now have to bring some of that back into how you lead your teams and organization. You are spending about 75% of your waking life at work and you know almost nothing about the people next to you. We have now worked with over 1,000 teams and when we ask them what percentage of work time they talk and interact like this, they say about 5 to 10%.  You are going into battle everyday against your competitors. You are in a superfast and complex world, and are being bombarded with new information and circumstances that make your playbook obsolete in a heartbeat. You need to know the person next to you and anticipate their reactions, emotions, and how they would react. You need to be able to trust them and be on the same page with them. You need to be more like a jazz band, starting with a plan but being able to quickly improvise and build on each other’s cues. Can you do that the way you used to be able to do with your friends when you were making that kite together, or figuring out how to arrange that play date? According to all of the research in the field of positive psychology, leaders who foster a spirit of positivity and fun create teams that outperform others.  In her book “Positivity”, Barbara Fredrickson shares research that shows that unless the ratio of positive to negative thoughts are at minimum 3 to 1, motivation and performance are adversely effected.1

You need to get your laughter, optimism, and positive energy back and display it often and shamelessly.

Lesson # 3 – Children and great leaders don’t assume, they experience.

The reason children learn technology, languages, sports, and many other subjects faster and more comprehensively than adults is that the child carries a beginner’s mindset that is unattached to assumptions and past routines.  In his book “The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhuigg presents a powerful case for how habits and routines play such a vital role in how leaders and organizations think and behave, and how difficult it is to unlearn and break habits.2 However, leaders, like children, must become learning agile. You must be able to sense the current situation and assess whether it requires creativity. Children approach each situation as a learning opportunity. Leaders get comfortable with what they know, can do, and took them to where they are.

 Get back the beginners mindset – when you listen, reflect and ask questions.

Lesson #4 – Children and great leaders are not afraid to show vulnerability.

Children don’t assume they know everything. They are not afraid to show their emotions. They seek help and advice. They are used to taking advice, feedback, and sometimes tough love. Leaders have a hard time showing vulnerability. Many have been shaped in cultures that discourage a leader asking for help, admitting their weaknesses, and showing emotions. By so doing, these cultures have destroyed the gift of whole heartedness that leaders were born with and carried as children. Instead, they have been taught to present themselves as robot-like managers whose mission is to push for pre-determined results at any cost, including that of not being able to change course with new information lest they be labeled as flip floppers or weak.

Remember how you connected with other children – you need to do more of that now.

Lesson #5 – Children and great leaders take the learning from mistakes and move on.

When you were a child, you used to take the learning from an experience and move on. There was simply too many fantastic and amazing experiences awaiting you every day to keep on regurgitating what had happened. You were able to adjust your strategy quickly to make sense and play in the world.  You tapped on anything and everyone that could teach you something. Pride of authorship, misplaced ego, and having to be right were not so important. Instead, you cherished getting better at something, knowing more, or making others happy through your learning and you always had the next class or next year to look forward to. You had stretch goals and milestones for development and growth. So what happened? Why are you so stuck on being right? On resting on past successes? On taking feedback personally?

You need to tap into your child-like ability to see experiences as the natural path to growth and steps to actualize your potential.  

As parents, we all get these principles and foster them in our children. But as leaders in our organizations, we have a difficult time following them ourselves. Why? I submit it is because we have allowed our environments, cultures, and others to take us away from our natural selves. We have stopped exercising the muscles we were born with to the point that they have atrophied. The good news is that we can get them back. It is a choice and it takes work. But we can do it. And I have witnessed the rebirth of these essential leadership skills in some of the leaders I have worked with.

 Spend some time this week thinking about the child in you and how he or she would advise you to lead.  

  1. Fredrickson, B. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
  2. Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.


Questions for online conversation

  1. Did you recall your childhood as you read this posting? How did it resonate with your experiences?
  2. If it resonated with you, how can you leverage the child in you?
  3. What will your advice be to your children on how they should lead others?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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