A few years ago, my business partner, Keith Coats, wrote a superb little book, “Everything I Know About Leadership I Learnt from the Kids” (it’s officially out of print, but you can still buy new copies from Amazon.co.uk and Kalahari.net). The book is written for leaders in all walks of life. Each chapter is a short story from Keith’s experience with his own children (and the children of a few friends, including my own), followed by a reflection and some remarkable insights on leadership. It really is a gem of a book.

And it has forever tuned me into the leadership lessons I can learn from my own children. I have three daughters, aged 5 to 11 at present, and they’re a constant source of joy, anxiety, love, learning, terror, pride, thrill and focus – all at the same time.

On Friday, I did a day long workshop on Global Trends with the private bankers at Coutts (the bank of The Queen and David Beckham). Given the audience, I decided to dress up, and arrived at breakfast with the family wearing a suit, tie, cufflinks – the full works. This is very unusual for me – my standard apparel is “business casual”. I must admit that I was feeling very posh and sophisticated, and quite pleased with myself as I thought about what the day had in store.

But my youngest daughter brought me down to size nicely as she saw me at breakfast: “Look, Daddy’s pretending to be a doctor!”. In her little world, the only people she has ever seen wearing ties are medical doctors, and her world is also neatly broken up into “real” and “pretend”.

There is a lot of “pretend” in the world of work. Some of it is necessary, as we present a version of ourselves to our colleagues and clients. We don’t need them to know everything about us – just those bits necessary to do our jobs. And that’s fine. But sometimes we begin to get sucked into some of the “pretend” worlds we create. And that ultimately can undermine who we really are.

For example, some people who have a faith might hide that fact away from colleagues who they know will ridicule or belittle them for it. Many women who are aiming for the boardroom have to act like men to get there and stay there. Some people act outside of their personalities and strengths so often that they begin to warp who they really are. And most of us, at least some of the time, have to pretend that our jobs are much more important than they really are, as we prioritise work over family, friends and personal health.

But, as David Laws, the British politican who tried to hide his homosexuality found out this past week, “pretend” has a way of catching up with you eventually. Even if there were very good reasons for you to pretend in the first place.

Keith Coats is fond of reminding leaders that “you lead out of who you are”. By this he means that authentic leadership is about character and not personality. This starts with personal mastery – with knowing yourself and building on your strengths. And obviously, therefore, very little “pretend”.

Our children can be a good mirror for us. To them, it matters little who you are when you’re in the office. To them, you’re just “Daddy” or “Mommy”, and they have an expectation about what they need from you, and a picture of who you really are when nobody else is watching. It would be good to try and make sure that what a watching world sees is as closely aligned to what your children see as possible. The further apart those two worlds are, the more likely it is that one of those worlds will be lost to you sometime in the future.

Just in case I needed further reminders that our children see us in a whole different way, my oldest daughter announced recently at supper that her Year 6 class had watched a video about the 1980s. Her face scrunched up into something part way between sneer, disgust and astonishment (only a true pre-teen can pull off an expression as expressive as that). She clearly had been unimpressed by watching a documentary on the decade that shaped her own parents. Her face said a thousand things, but the only thing she could make her mouth say was, “The 1980s: what was up with that?”. Thinking about it, that pretty much sums that decade up, doesn’t it?

Out of the mouths of babes…

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