Our colleague and co-founder of TomorrowToday, Keith Coats, is one of the world’s leading experts on leadership development. He is also a remarkable story teller and writer. A few years ago, we encouraged him to put into written form some of his thoughts and stories on what we can learn about leadership from our role as parents. The result was a superb little book called “Everything I Know About Leadership I Learnt from the Kids” (buy it now from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com).

With Keith’s permission, we are going to extract a few of those stories and reflections and post them here over the next few months. These are anything but children’s stories. They are wonderful leadership lessons and provide opportunities for reflection and discussion on what it means to be – and become – a leader in this new world of work.

Read and enjoy…

I will never forget the emotions that accompanied holding my firstborn, a son, in my arms for the very first time. I felt so proud. Well actually, I felt so very clever, like I had achieved this amazing feat all on my own – an illusion that was quickly dispelled and something which I have now come to accept I had very little to do with, were you to hear my wife’s epic version of the childbearing and birthing process that is!

I remember thinking how much he looked like Winston Churchill…not a popular observation I might add with the assembled and somewhat biased admirers. This experience taught me to keep such spontaneous observations strictly to myself and none more so than when observing the infants of other doting parents who just don’t seem to see the prune like qualities most babies arrive with. What I didn’t know at that memorable time however, was just how much I would learn about life from that bundle in my arms. Of course the first bundle was soon followed by a second and eventually by a third…slow to learn I can hear you thinking, and in some respects you would be right.

Of course life was never to be the same again.

Vicky and I have gone through the respective life-cycles that mark the hazardous terrain we call ‘parenting’. The 2am feedings that turn into 2am dates; the fear that one day these precious little beings (or ‘sacred beings’ as the Sioux Natives refer to them) will grow–up and leave home, morphing into the very real fear that they will never leave home; the worry that they won’t complete their schooling, becoming the panic that they will want to go to university further stretching my financial enslavement; the “look how cute they are together” to, “touch my daughter and I’ll hang you out to dry”. Sure there are others, but I think you get my point.

As I watched these Sacred Beings that inhabited our home grow-up there was a growing awareness of just how valuable they were in pointing me to fresh life-lessons, lessons in particular about leadership.

A lot has been said and written about leadership and not much of it I suspect very new. Seldom has a subject been rehashed, reworded, re-engineered, remodeled,  reworked and re-everything as this age old preoccupation with leadership. But there you have it, and I will certainly not be the one to provide the final or authoritive word on the subject. In fact providing ‘the final word’ is not possible as leadership, as with life, can never be fixed, static, unchanging. If leadership is to be appropriate it has to be contextual and so it is with parenting.

As I have read about leadership, studied it, practiced it and even in a sense made a living out of it, what I have noticed is one amazing trend: the most enduringly popular books on business topics are the most simple. Certainly the ‘One Minute Manager’ series by Ken Blanchard got the ball rolling and the most recent example would be the almost inexplicable success of, ‘Who moved my cheese?’ (Which I might add fails to provide the answer to the question posed by the title!). The fact the cheese book comes a distant second in comprehension ability to most of the books on any 10 year old child’s bookshelf, including Harry Potter, makes you wonder about adults, comprehension and leadership!

Meg Wheatley wrote on leadership as being, “an amorphous phenomenon that has intrigued us since people began organizing, is being examined now for its relational aspects. Few if any theorists ignore the complexity of relationships that contribute to a leader’s effectiveness. Instead, there are more and more studies on partnership, followership, empowerment, teams, networks, and the role of context” (Leadership and the new Science)

So what is it with business leaders who would prefer to read such books but who nonetheless stack some of the more respectable titles on their selves? Closer scrutiny invariably reveals unmarked pages and a layer of dust, dead give-aways concerning the reading and application of such resources.

I suspect that most of them simply don’t have the time or inclination to wade through volumes of uninspiring theory and knee-deep research. Most are looking for easy to understand, easy to identify with and easy to implement suggestions, ideas and “ah-ha” type truths.

In short, stories.

Stories seemingly have an innate ability to inspire and live with the reader in much the same way as that comfortable old jacket or favorite pair of shoes. Stories can emerge out of the natural ingredients of daily life or be cobbled together with make-belief ingredients from magical worlds embedded in the imagination, but either way, they have the ability to connect, transport and surround one in an almost mystical way.

And this is where the kids come in.

These lab rats (no offence you lot) have provided me, and I hope you by the time you have read this offering, a real time case study in the art of corporate leadership. Most, but not all the stories emanate from our particular cave. However, irrespective of the cave from which they come, all the stories have their gravitational centre rooted firmly in the world of kids.

As I have had the privilege of participating in the unfinished business of parenting (will it ever end?) there have been some incredible truths that have emerged as I have thought about leadership. It has been said that it is important to learn from the mistakes of others as you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself! This blog series then has been written to share a bundle of insights, reflections and mistakes with you. I am sure that you could add several of your own. I am also sure that any of you who have been called upon to be a parent will be able to relate in your own unique way to what I have written. I have decided to share some of the stories that some would argue should not be allowed to see the light of day, or certainly not pass beyond the portals of the Coats household. So in advance I apologize to those who have provided the subject matter for the series and can assure them that the names and places have not been changed to protect their identity. I have greatly enjoyed rummaging and scratching around the memory loft in search of these stories. Some have been easy to find, others less so. But once located, dusted off, and stacked in a pile, they have shone brightly, yielding I believe some wonderful lessons for those who serve others through their leadership.

Perhaps our adult world is not all that different from that of a kindergarten. As we recognize the need to infuse fun, adventure and play into our all too serious settings, we could learn a thing or two from kids everywhere, the undisputed kings (and queens) of the playground.

Enjoy what is on offer. My hope is that reading this series will awake your own treasure chest of memories that, as they yawn and stretch themselves, will bring lightness, humor and effectiveness into your own leadership context. Such are the unfolding lessons we learn from those whom we have the wonderful responsibility to teach, lead, and give our hard earned money to…our kids! C. S. Lewis once wrote (Letters to an American Lady), “The only ordinary homes seem to be the ones we don’t know much about”. By the end of this series you’ll come to understand that our home is no ordinary home!

It was Irish poet and scholar John O’Donohue who wrote, ‘You traveled a great distance to get here’ and French philosopher Blaiśe Pascal who gifted us with the phrase, “we are embarked”. Indeed we have already traveled some ways in reaching this point and yet find ourselves embarked on new voyages of discovery. My invitation then is for you to take off those shoes and socks, and enjoy both the memories and the journey…

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