What Children teach us about Leadership Development

Feb 19, 2020

Children and Leadership Development; at first glance there's not much to connect the two topics, but when speaking at a conference or coaching a leadership team, I often find myself using my children as examples. This is, of course, motivated by the fact I am a proud father - but also because children so quickly reflect our values.

As leaders, our values drive our behaviors, and our followers very quickly pick up on what's important to us. In this post I wanted to share 3 such Leadership Development Principles, that children bring into focus.

Leadership Development Principles

1. Modeling Behavior

Every parent knows that children are great mimics, they watch you like a hawk and duplicate your behavior. This can be amusing, as when my daughter first started painting her nails after watching her mother, or my son picking up my tennis racket and saying, "like daddy." The dark side of this modeling is when children mimic the aggressive behavior of adults. This dark side of mimicking was demonstrated by psychologist, Dr. Albert Bandura with the Bobo Doll experiment in which he showed children copying the aggressive behavior of adults. What is heart breaking is seeing children as young as 6, carrying AK47 rifles in war torn areas of the world.

Adults too model behavior which is why the leaders of any team or organization must "walk the talk", they must be the model for the behaviors they wish to see duplicated. Talk is cheap - action is real.

2. Validation

Both my children used to clap themselves when they did something right and they both beamed when they were given praise (and still do). As a leadership Coach I know how important it is that managers and leader praise improvement in performance, not just the completed task or project. Research by Dr Ethna Reid shows that teachers who get the best results, validate regularly. Successful teachers also alternate between teaching and questioning (testing) for comprehension.

When leading or managing in a fast-paced world it is all too easy to criticize poor performance and to tell rather than ask. If we can flip this to "ask don't tell", we can find more opportunities to validate positive intentions and actions, which is much more likely to keep up motivation and engagement.

This shift is at the heart of my ‘Leader as Coach’ program and, in my opinion, must be part of any leadership development initiative.

3. Story Telling

Children love stories and interpret our cultural moral code from those stories. My daughter knew, at an early age, what made good princesses (courtesy of Disney) and why the queen is evil. My son learned from Thomas the Tank Engine that when you break the rules you go off the rails, he even used to exclaim very loudly "oh no!" when this happens.

Effective leaders also tell stories that let their followers know what the vision and culture of the organization is. These stories get retold and strongly influence the behavior of the team or workforce. When I was teaching coaching skills at Singapore Airlines, I noticed how they regularly used stories of exemplary customer service to validate and reinforce the behavior of going the extra mile service (GEMS).

Children and leadership Development - I think there are plenty more lessons to learn. Perhaps you have other Leadership Principles you have learned from children - feel free to share.

(This post was first published in April, 2009 when children were just 3 and 4, they are older now but they are still teaching me.)

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