Harvard Business Review

What Leaders Can Learn From Children

10 November 2008 | Source: Harvard Business Review

I often ask my people this question: What do you do if you are outdoors and it begins to rain? Run for cover? Find a bus shelter, an overbridge, or even a tree to protect yourself from getting wet? Or, do you stand your ground, instinctively change your game-plan and take delight at the sudden turn of events?

Unlike children, we adults draw comfort working within predictable boundaries. The sudden turn that used to delight us when we were kids raises our guard as adults.

Have you seen a child’s eyes light up when it rains and he or she is caught outdoors? They soak in the wetness and the smell of the thirsty earth, they splash in the water and find new games to play in the rain.

There is a forgotten lesson we leaders can learn here as we deal with the thundering rain in the world of business right now.

Once you are wet, the fear of getting wet is over and you start enjoying the rain. With the fear gone, you return to your work with unmitigated enthusiasm. However, if you freeze indoors because of rain, there is no way you will reach anyplace.

Leadership is not child’s play, we have been told. We usually try to draw leadership lessons from teachers, parents, freedom fighters, influential business leaders, the army, even dolphins and geese…but why not children?

Just for once, let’s look at leadership as child’s play. What lessons do we draw from them?

As the corporate world brushes the dust off leadership readings to dig out experiences that can guide us in the mess we are in today, the book entitled" Lasting Leadership: Lessons from the 25 Most Influential Business People of Our Times published by Wharton School Publishing comes to mind. It identifies eight attributes of leadership, each of which has its own chapter in the book. These are: the ability to build a strong corporate culture; to be a truth-teller; to find and cater to under-served markets; to ‘see the invisible’; to use price to build competitive advantage; to excel at managing and building their organization’s brand ; to be a fast learner; and to be skilled at managing risk.

The book includes essays describing a major challenge that each leader faced during his or her career, and detailed timelines of each leader’s life. But if I were to look at it in a different way, four out of these eight leadership attributes are lessons that we can learn from children if we observe them carefully.

For starters, kids are honest – at least, most of the time. Kids tell it like they see it, like they feel it, like they want it. And while their communication may be embarrassing and brutal for their parents, there’s no doubt their communication is genuine and its delivery, faultless. Do we tell it like we witness or feel it, or do we sugar-coat or window-dress our communication? Do we communicate instantaneously and clearly, or do we strategize and stage-manage our actions to procrastinate the inevitable?

The games they play often have an element of ‘imagine’, which we leaders overlook in our obsessive focus on movement on the road ahead and the rear view mirror. The question ‘Why?’ has taken inordinate precedence over the all important child-like question: ‘Why not?’

And, of course, the curiosity of a child is incomparable. Children ask questions because they want to know. Naturally curious, hungry for information, and constantly churning new facts to understand the world around.

And as they learn, children take calculated risks. Oblivious of their level of competence or incompetence – whichever way you look at it — they take their chances. On a rainy day, they soak in the wetness, and take the chance of catching a chill — a calculated risk.

We can discuss other traits of children – trust, loyalty, intuitiveness, responsibility, dedication, competitiveness, collaboration, excitement, adventure, challenge, moral fulfillment, et al. – and apply them to leadership, and I’m sure the lessons derived will surprise the most experienced and hardened leader on our planet.

Eartha Kitt once said, “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.” We are students all our lives because, no matter how or what we feel, say and think, today the only successful leader is the ‘student leader’ who draws lessons from everyday experiences to expand into new horizons.

I think it’s time to wipe our bloody nose and discover the child within us to give our leadership a much-needed makeover.

Originally posted on Vineet Nayar’s Blog site on Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2008/11/how-leadership-can-be-childs-p.html