Leadership Lessons from Our Children?

Recently, a friend and former colleague and I were discussing how we had both learned so much more about leadership and leading people from children than we had from any other source: training, education, or on the job experience. Perhaps the last example was due more to the fact that we were deficient in strong developmental “leaders” at our mutual employer but I really think there is something to the simplicity of working with children versus the complexities of leading in business. This simplicity allows us to take action, quickly see the results and then to adjust accordingly if we don’t get a “good” outcome. It is almost like a little mini case study where we get to practice our techniques in real time.

My friend was explaining how he had been coaching 10 year old boys on the baseball field all Summer and that just getting one of them to stop climbing up the backstop had been a huge milestone. He further described how telling the boys the importance of the fundamentals in fielding, throwing, and hitting was a start but if they didn’t believe it themselves they were never going to work on those skills when they were off of the practice field. Similarly in the business world, if your people don’t believe in the mission or don’t believe in the company values that you profess they are unlikely to incorporate them into their everyday work when you are not looking. Without the financial incentives of a paycheck or annual bonus that tie rewards to effort or outcomes the importance of each team member supporting the mission becomes imperative.

My example was learning from my children how to lead with different personality types, something that I have to admit that I am continually working on. My daughter is the older of our two children and she has always been a rule follower and very mature for her age. My wife and I would joke that she could have just raised herself since the age of three. Being a parent for the first few years was incredibly easy, almost too easy. We scoffed at other parents who couldn’t “control” their child when they wouldn’t listen or when they had the toddler meltdown. Then along came my son and yes we love him dearly but he completely rocked our confidence in our parenting skills. No longer was it satisfactory to just ask for something to be done, everything had to have a reason and that reason needed to be explained. If that explanation was not both rational and consistent with his previous understanding of the world then there would be a debate until it did make sense. We suggested that by the age of 3 he was predestined to become a lawyer with every bullet and sub-bullet litigated to its logical conclusion.

It was at this time that I started to draw on these similarities to some of the people that I had led throughout my career. Some were like my daughter and were pretty good rule followers – they knew the boundaries, they were often times self-starters, they would move the work forward and would ask an occasional question when they needed some help. Others were more like my son and needed to make sense of everything before getting on board – they would ask many questions about what was expected and when things didn’t align with their understand they would challenge you on the why these things were expected.

Expecting these questions I have changed my behaviors. I am now more prepared for my explanation thinking through the request and making sure that it does make sense. For me this was a great lesson in understanding your audience and customizing your approach and as I mentioned earlier… I am still learning!

I did a quick search to find other comments/thoughts on leadership from parents – here are a couple of good ones that I found and thought you might enjoy:

2 replies to “Leadership Lessons from Our Children?”

  1. E. Laramy | Jul 6, 2012, 12:58 pm

    This is very interesting on many levels. First, the point uncovered about how we approach decisions in a work environment vs. at home with kids. Funny how at work we tend to treat decisions like they are nitro-glycerine, yet at home we treat them more like Silly Putty. It is almost as if the “fear of failure” has been removed at home. Perhaps that is just it and we need to be much less afraid of failure and understand that the progress derived from the attempt is far more valuable. Maybe it is not always truly possible, but it is interesting to consider. (taking a point from the book The Black Swan… what could we accomplish if we were less inhibited by our demons?)

    And second, the point revealed about how kids are dynamically different is so powerful. Yet often our educational system takes a more one-size-fits-all approach in the “teaching” of course work. Lessons are planned and teachers try to execute these lessons often with little or no thought about how one child may learn simply by following the lesson while another needs different approach. Teaching kids to exercise at extreme altitude variations provides a great analogy. If they both follow the same plan, the child at high altitude is going to tire and struggle much more than the child at low altitude. Yet it will be the child at high altitude that ultimate excels once adapted.
    There I go again… me and my crazy analogies.

    For me, raising my daughter has been the highlight of my life. Explaining to her and nurturing her natural inquisitive personality has been so fulfilling. Now nearly sixteen, I reflect on the time spent developing her as a young child and realize it was probably more about me than her. It may have been that I was given an incredible opportunity that I valued so highly that I became completely dedicated to it and regardless of how the wind may change direction, I was always going to be flexible and adjust with care to guide it along. On an emotional level, that great “flexibility” enables a young developing character to grow. On a work/more factual level, that same flexibility enables people, providing energy, encouraging teamwork and makes leaders who yield it very wise.

    Good stuff Matt.

  2. matthew.hunt | Jul 6, 2012, 3:58 pm

    To your point on schools and one size fits all there was a great TED talk back in 2006 from Sir Ken Robinson on how the education system kills creativity by not understanding different types of learners. If you haven’t already seen it you MUST invest 19 minutes of your time and watch it… http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

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