Having written the book, Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids, I often get asked if I really believe that leaders can learn about leadership from kids.
Yes, I do. And here’s why I believe leaders can learn from kids.
Last year my daughter Tamryn, was elected as Head Girl of her school (of course the proud parents pointed knowingly to the role that the gene pool had played in the process!). It was interesting to watch her tackle the responsibility and challenges that such a position entailed and I enjoyed some insightful conversations with her as the year unfolded. Once the curtain on the year came down I invited her to send me an email sharing what she had learnt about leadership through the experience.
Besides the obvious need to work on respect for her father, this was the response:

Hello there old Chap,
I am just going to put them in a list. There are seven things that I really learnt this year from being Head Girl with a team of 27 prefects and two deputies.
1. Your success relies on that of your team. I only really felt as though I was succeeding if my team was happy and satisfied.
2. Your team is your priority and their needs come FIRST. I remember a quote from a card that you sent me from Hawaii that said, ‘By the strength of the leader’s commitment, the power of the team will be unleashed’. I dedicated my efforts to serve the team and they knew that I was fully committed to their success.
3. It is allright for things not to run perfectly all the time. Reality doesn’t always go according to plan. A good leader is not one who, at all costs, tries to prevent conflict from happening, but one who can recognise when a conflict is going to emerge and deal with it accordingly. I found out that sometimes conflict is necessary if people are going to express themselves honestly.
4. I learnt that it was important to trust others. I learnt that others – if given the chance, will do things as well as you can, sometimes even better. You need to wholeheartedly trust your team with tasks.
5. Affirmation is never a cliché. Every week throughout the year I wrote to certain members of my team encouraging them and giving them feedback. I tried to give specific feedback on what I had seen. For example, if they had gone out of their way to help someone or if I saw someone making a real effort to build new friendships or fulfil their responsibilities in spite of being very busy with other school activities…things like that. I wanted them to know that I was aware of them and their situation. Writing those notes took a lot of time and thought and not only did it gave me the chance to focus on each person but also to think about what was happening within our team as a whole.
6. The stability of my team started with stability at the top. If my deputies and I were not completely united in goals, mindsets and dedication toward the team, then we wouldn’t have been able to lead at all. I also learnt that even though I was the head and they the deputies, it really meant nothing as we needed to treat each other equally to ensure overall success. The three of us developed great respect for one another and took all decisions democratically. As the ‘management team’ within the bigger team we needed to be a constant example of teamwork. In this we could not afford to waiver and our togetherness played a big part in the entire team’s ability to work as a team.
7. No one wants to work without vision. If you have no major purpose you are drifting towards certain failure. Our vision was to model a sense of pride and passion for our school. We wanted the pupils to display this not because they were forced too, but because they really genuinely felt it. I think we managed to achieve this.
8. And finally…leadership in my opinion is all about service. You have to serve wholeheartedly. It is the ultimate irony: the highest leader is the greatest server. Another quote that helped me (I like my quotes!) was: ‘True leaders are not those who strive to be first, but those who are first to strive and who give their ALL for the success of the team!’
I am not sure if that’s what you wanted Pops but phone me when you get this.

…Thanks Tamryn…that’s exactly what I wanted!
I recall driving each of our three kids to their first day in High School. One’s first day is always an intimidating experience. I remember getting them to articulate how they were feeling – really feeling, and then store that emotion away for later recall. That moment would come when they would be starting their final year – when the new had long given way to the familiar; to then be able to reach back all those years and recall their first day emotions meant that they would be able to empathize with those experiencing their first day giants.
Leaders often forget the ‘principle of the first day’ and by so doing miss a connection moment to not only develop relationship but an opportunity to re-learn lessons lost in the mist of the past – lessons that could make them better leaders in the present. Tamryn recalled how she felt when on her first day some senior had learnt her name and then would greet her by name whenever their respective days intersected. As a result she decided to learn the names of five ‘first day’ pupils every day for the first term. She wanted to be able to notice them, greet them by name and know something about them. Her prefect team did likewise and by so doing closed the traditional ‘gap’ between prefects and pupils – a gap that inflicts most school (and hierarchical) environments.
This past week I visited a pet shop which stocks marine fish – a hobby of mine. On my previous visit to the shop some 6 weeks earlier, I had encountered a most helpful young staff member who was new to the team in the shop. As I walked in this time round he looked up from his task and said, “Hi Keith, good to see you again, let me know how I can help you�. That is impressive. It is impressive – and effective, whatever your business. By remembering my name (and using it) he won instant points. Names are important.
Teamwork and leading a team, when seen through the eyes of a 17-year old leader, really is simple. Yet the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through to those older and supposedly wiser. Considering the volumes of literature on emotional intelligence and teamwork one would think that those in corporate leadership would be savvy in these areas, attuned to the demands of the emerging Connection economy and what that means for leadership. Studies done over six continents using a sampling of 100,000 senior executives (including 1,000 CEO’s) by Bradberry and Greaves, reveal that companies are still promoting executives principally on what they know and how long they have been with the company rather than on their ability to lead. They pose a telling question as a result of their research: ‘How could it be that the very people who need emotional intelligence the most seem to have it the least?’ (HBR OnPoint Executive Edition, Winter 2005)
Not long ago a colleague and I were asked to spend an entire day with a senior executive team with our only brief, in the words of the CEO, ‘to help us talk to each other’. Here were senior executives who had lost the ability to authentically engage with one another outside of the familiar operational issues pertaining to the business. It is not an isolated experience. There are many other examples representing a similar malady that I could submit in evidence of the prevalence of such a condition within the corporate environment. But I suspect that for those of you familiar with the corporate environment, no further evidence is needed! I recall the comment a colleague made when asked to comment on a day long review process examining the various performance processes in a large financial institution. Looking at the complex diagrams, boxes and flowcharts detailing the various in-house processes that had emerged as the day had run its course – processes that necessitated a team of over 100 to maintain them, his comment was: “I wonder how much of all that this is designed to accomplish could be done by managers simply knowing how to have a decent conversation with their staff over a cup of coffee?�
It remains a good question for leaders everywhere.
Yes, I believe there are many lessons leaders can learn from ‘kids’, if only they would take the time to ask and listen. It might necessitate stooping down a bit depending on the size of the teacher, but then again, that very act might not be so harmful for leaders unaccustomed to doing so! Articulating the values at the core of any business initiative, and then ensuring that they are being lived out by those tasked with leadership, is not difficult stuff.
It is an understanding that people rather than your products are your brand. It is the realization that as your people grasp and own the values, it allows the command and control style of leadership to once and for all be cast on the leadership scrapheap. Tom Peters frames it like this, “In weird, wild, text-book defiant times like these, the model of leaders as ‘all knowing commander and order-giver extraordinaire’ is fatally and fundamentally flawed.�
In a world that has changed, leadership has to change. There simply is no other choice. Leaders need to look for new metaphors for their organisations and in particular for their own leadership. Understanding the company as an organic system (as opposed to the old machine model) is to recognise the inherent capacity for change, adaptation and self-organisation. Values become the DNA or the soul of the company and the leader’s role in the recognition, understanding and translating of all this is fundamental. It is what leadership is all about.
Savvy leaders then are not afraid to ask the questions, of themselves and others. They are prepared to look in unlikely places for lessons in leadership that they can apply. They believe old dogs can learn new tricks (not to believe such is an insult to even an old dog) and are always ready to learn ‘new tricks’.
So maybe what you need to learn next is closer at hand than you think, ‘old chap’. Go ahead and ask, listen, play some and then think a while. If nothing else, you will have fun doing so and perhaps the act of stooping is exercise that is long overdue!
Go on Pops…I dare you!

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