Any Five Year Old Can Lead


I asked a good friend of mine who also coaches executives what the three most important attributes of a leader were.  She listed the following three things:

•    Ability to communicate
•    Ability to inspire
•    Ability to keep an open mind

Now I might argue some other attributes could be in the top three but all in all I thought it was a pretty good list.  So my next question was this – can’t a five year old do all those things? <!–more–>I’ve got three kids and from my perspective a five year old does those things better than most adults.  They communicate constantly and don’t apply any filters to their communication, so their feedback is genuine.  They also listen without filters and often get the message you are trying to send much quicker than adults.  In fact at five, they still think you are smarter than they are and so they listen to everything.  Now that isn’t the same at 10 but its nice while it lasts.

If you’ve ever seen a group of grown people standing around a five year old playing silly games and doing things they would never normally fathom doing in public, its hard to argue with a child’s ability to inspire.  In fact, my kids inspire me on a daily basis.  When it comes to the open mind, kids are far superior in their ability to do that.  As adults we have all kinds of perceptions,reactions and beliefs that make it very difficult for most of us to be truly open minded.  So if a five year old can do these things, do they already have the skills to be a great leader?  And if they do, should we focus on teaching them leadership skills in order to make them better?  Or is it that skills are not the issue at all?

I believe most of us early in life can do all the things that great leaders do.  Somewhere along the line though we watch other managers or people further up the corporate ladder doing things a different way.  We see them focusing on things rather than people, we see them putting a high priority on activities like email, meetings, and other managerial tasks that sometimes don’t drive the performance of the team at all.  Slowly we come to believe that these are the things leaders do to be successful.  What’s more, if our boss is paying attention to these kinds of things then that just reinforces our sense that these must be the right things for us to spend our time on.  Maybe we even see someone who spends all their time on these kinds of activities get promoted, and rewarded for “getting things done”.  All this adds up to create a very different picture for us of what good leadership looks like.

And yet, whenever I ask people what makes a great leader they absolutely never say “is very attentive to email” or “has lots of meetings”.  They always talk about things just like the ones my friend suggested – communication, inspiration, and an open mind.  Somehow though, we manage to teach ourselves that the tactical elements of management are more critical and we will spend time communicating and inspiring when we get around to it.  There’s no question that the tactical things need to happen to keep the machine running but are they really the most important?

What could we accomplish as leaders if we spent 70 or 80 percent of our time inspiring our people, listening to them, motivating them and really understanding what they wanted out of life, this job, their career?  Would we be more like the leaders we’ve all seen who are able to change the way we think every time we interact with them?  Maybe, just maybe, we could capture the same sense of wonder, determination, and resilience that we see every time we catch ourselves stopping and smiling – at a five year old.

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