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‘I will be kind and helpful’ Leadership lessons from a 6-year-old

Last week my 6-year-old daughter, Lila, came bouncing home from school excited to tell me that she had been voted Vice Captain by her class (proud mum moment). Given she is only in Year 2 (I think it is fair to say things have changed a little from when I was a student), I was intrigued to find out more. When I dug a little deeper, she told me that they had to put themselves forward for the role and then do a speech to the class about why they would be a good leader.

When I asked her what she had said in her speech, she replied ‘I said I will be kind and helpful’.

What immediately struck me was how brilliant it is that her school is building confidence in children from such a young age. To get them to think about what kind of person they want to be and how they want impact on others. Most importantly though, it was her words ‘I will be kind and helpful’ that really resonated. Words not traditionally top of the list when thinking about Leadership.

Be Kind

When we were deep in lock down and home-schooling, I read a Harvard Business review article: Good Leadership Is an Act of Kindness B.Groysberg & Susan Seligson 2020. It talked about how managers were deep in crisis mode saving their businesses, yet they seemed to have forgotten that a fundamental aspect of being a leader was to be kind, and as a result their people and their businesses were suffering. Astonishingly, a recent Gallup survey found that less than half of employees (45 percent) feel strongly that their employers care about their well-being. Yet where bosses take the time to listen & support their teams it has been shown to increase morale, decrease absenteeism and increase retention of high performers.

Not surprisingly perhaps during the pandemic, they found normally calm, high performing team members suffering with burnout, failing to achieve their goals, and suffering both mentally and emotionally. More so than ever it’s important to remember that kindness is contagious and calming. According to the Mayo Clinic, acts of kindness activate part of the brain that make us feel pleasure and release oxytocin which helps us regulate emotions and social interactions. In short, being kind is good for both our mental health and our team’s.

Be helpful

Way back in the 1970’s, Robert Greenleaf wrote about servant leadership. ‘The servant-leader is a servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead’.

Whilst the term ‘servant leadership’ now feels dated, the essence of what he is saying still rings true. Ken Blanchard called it ‘upside-down leadership’. In his book ‘One minute manager’ the following reflects this:

“When you think in a pyramid… the assumption is that everyone works for the person above them on the organisational ladder. As a result, managers are thought to be ‘responsible’ for planning, organizing, and evaluating everything that happens in the organization while their people are supposed to be ‘responsive to the directives of management.’ That’s why people … end up thinking managers do all the work…. I prefer to turn the pyramid upside down so that top managers are at the bottom…. When that happens there is a subtle, but powerful, twist in who is responsible and who should be responsive to whom.”

When I think of all the brilliant leaders I’ve come across in business, they all have a few things in common; they always listened, they helped me to unblock problems, they empowered and encouraged me to be my very best – giving me clear goals and then setting me free to achieve them. Above all I think they saw leadership as a real privilege to help others achieve their potential…not for their own gains. I think the same is true for any great leader, in business or not.

Let your people have their say

The final thing that Lila said which really struck me, was that they all voted for who they wanted to fill each position in her class (with their eyes closed, and specifically told not to only vote for their friends).

This felt like the ultimate in upside-down management to me…ask your people who you want to lead them. We do it in politics, why not in business? Imagine how wonderful it would be if we really listened to our teams when filling those senior positions! If we found the courage to ask the people who they will ultimately serve, who they want to be led by, based on what kind of leader they will be!

Want to be a more kind and helpful as a leader? Here are a few thoughts that may help:

Practice Makes Perfect:

Kindness is like any other skill – it’s teachable and the more we practice it, the more it becomes part of who we are. Think of one kind act you can pay someone in your team and do it today.

Flip your organisation:

Consider if you flipped your organisation, who would be at the top? Once you know who that is, then ask for their insight on both your Current Leadership (and how that could be better) and Future Talent (what they need in the long term)

Current Leadership:

  • What do they want more or less of from you as a Leader?

  • What problems can you help unlock for them right now?

  • What ideas do they have to make this the best place to work?

Future Talent:

  • What attributes does the next Leader need? And why?

  • What do you need to do to challenge yourself to be brave and hand over the recruitment of the next big hire to your team? – a true test of upside down leadership.

  • What other decisions can you ask them to make on your behalf?

Leadership lessons can come from many places and situations. Next time, think about what you can do to be a more kind and helpful leader, and what do you need to do for your team to vote for you with their eyes closed.

If in doubt, think like a 6 year old.

By Carla Cringle


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