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Leadership in 2024 could be child’s play

After nearly 20 years of dealing with challenge after challenge and a world that is now spinning faster than most of us feel we can control, we aren’t just dizzy, we are exhausted, frustrated, confused and angry. As leaders we have had to shoulder so much of the burden, often meaning that we haven’t had time to do our own jobs, because we have been putting out other people’s fires. We have staff who are unprepared for the culture we need to create and colleagues who are often now, simply in survival mode.

Have you ever stopped to admire the incredible talents of very young children? Toddlers are extraordinary. Every day of their young lives are different, they are bombarded with the new, the uncertain and with change, yet it’s how at that age, we like it! We learn somewhere between 70 & 75% of everything we’ll learn in our lifetime before we are 5 years old. Most of us will learn to walk and talk, to understand vocal intonation, facial expression, and the complexities of body language. We will make sense of the sensory world around us. If we’re born into a multilingual home, we will learn to speak any language we are exposed to. We are change experts and learning machines. I was lucky enough to work with these mini marvels for nearly two decades and, over the last two, since leaving front-line education, working globally advising organisations, on leadership and change, I have become convinced that the answer to our future, lies in their behaviour.

The mindset we need now
After nearly 20 years of dealing with challenge after challenge and a world that is now spinning faster than most of us feel we can control, we aren’t just dizzy, we are exhausted, frustrated, confused and angry. As leaders we have had to shoulder so much of the burden, often meaning that we haven’t had time to do our own jobs, because we have been putting out other people’s fires. We have staff who are unprepared for the culture we need to create and colleagues who are often now, simply in survival mode.

Recently, working with the new graduate intake at one of the Big Four accountancy firms, the director in charge explained to me that, despite this incredibly bright and successful group of young people gaining employment in one of the most sought after companies in the world, and despite their undeniable ability to work through systems and processes, a large percentage, lacked the confidence or skill to interact, on a human level, with clients and so were tending to try and make themselves invisible, when we needed them to do what matters most.

Just before the pandemic, I was chatting to the 2017 Nobel Prize winning physicist, Barry Barish, I asked him what he looked for when he recruited the team of scientists who went on to develop the groundbreaking research, that won the world’s most celebrated scientific award. He told me that he needed curious people.  He explained that too many people in his professional orbit, become increasingly specialised the more successful they became, the narrower their focus meaning that they were less, and less able to look for the new, or to challenge convention.

He needed what he called, three-dimensional people, people who had interesting hobbies and interests outside of their jobs; people who travelled, had a passion for sports or the arts. People who were constantly stimulated by new experiences and thinking. He used a phrase which has really stuck with me, he wanted people who, “Had the courage to challenge the beauty of the proof”. To that end, he wanted people who were comfortable asking stupid questions.

Children then!

Facing change
Most of us are increasingly educated and then managed in what I call a culture of assumed incompetence. We are taught to be efficient, to do what we are told, how we are told and when we are told, in order to prove that we are worthy. We are also told that the reward will be certainty both personally and professionally. Ironically, as young children, we are encouraged to try everything, to ask anything and to do so again and again.

When I look back on my work as an educator, I realise that we learn nothing new by getting something right, that can only happen at the point of a mistake, or the realisation that we can’t do something or don’t know something.

Under pressure and in times of relentless change, we as adults, tend to default trying to get things right, to wanting to be told what, why, where, and how. We shy away from anything that further threatens our sense of certainty. We hunker down and hope the storm will pass. We isolate, whereas as young children we are encouraged to collaborate, to share strengths and weaknesses and to work together to learn and to overcome challenges.

I believe, now more than ever, that the future for us all, lies in the mindset of our youngest children, and how we use their ways of seeing the world to reverse engineer the thoughts and behaviours we have seen dominate our workplaces over the last few years. This is a belief I have seen underlined to me in the way some of the world’s most high-profile technology companies, prize emotional intelligence as the key quality for leadership, even above knowledge. In world class sport, where athletes and coaches are encouraged to diversify their experiences and spend time learning from other disciplines and sectors, in order to play with the new and challenge the old, and where, in global consulting firms, new employees are sent to theme parks to rediscover their curiosity, creativity and childlike awe and wonder.

Catalysts for change
We all have to start somewhere so my top three catalysts are;

  • Firstly, as leaders, stop believing that we need to be infallible and always in control. As adults interacting with young children, we pretend to laugh and cry, we model behaviours that show toddlers that its ok to make mistakes, to ask stupid questions and to challenge the beauty of the proof. As leaders, we need to be the role models of those same behaviours. We all mirror behaviours and having leaders who don’t show vulnerability or humanity, makes it doubly difficult for us to identify with them or to shift our ways of functioning. We need to be fallible, human.
  • Secondly, we need to encourage our people to look beyond their jobs and to explore development opportunities that are actually personal. Our ability to be creative, to think differently and to be comfortable exploring new ways of working rely on our ability to change and to learn. We must resist the urge, that under stress and pressure, we often have, to get our heads down, avoid distraction and work harder. We need to encourage three dimensionality and stupid questions. We need to value learning new, often seemingly unrelated things in order to stimulate curiosity, self-leadership, and proactive thinking.
  • Finally, we need to recognise that the future will not be fuelled by competition or individual achievement but through collaboration, by ‘playing together’. To do that, we all need to set our egos aside, and to be honest about our own strengths and weaknesses, to share our problems, our ideas, and our thinking. We need to get out of our departmental silos and work across disciplines and fields of expertise, and being open-minded enough to know that the next great idea or solution won’t come from me but from us, and maybe, even our children.

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