What my four year old can teach you about your leadership

Have you ever watched a child play? It is fascinating. They can (sometimes) sit there for hours, completely fixated on what they are doing with blocks, a lego project or play-doh. They figure out how the pieces fit together – they try and stick bits that don’t stay, they try again a different way, a different angle and make these obscure creations. They will break it into pieces, throw bits around, make a mess and then do it all over again. You can see their minds ticking over, understanding how something works, figuring out how it fits, repeating actions until they get it right. They have this innocence and naivety about them that allows their frustration and self-doubt that they “can’t do it” to only be fleeting thoughts. Which gives them enviable amounts of resilience and determination. 4yo_Square


I have watched my son go through these motions as he’s grown, from two to three to now four years old. Watching as he progresses, continues to practice and put in place the skills that he is trialling and testing to learn how to build that new lego or pull apart for the thousandth time the race car track for his Hot Wheels. What I have noticed as he has mastered each skill, he continued to look for the “next thing” that he could do that was more challenging (like a more complicated lego monster or a section of the race-car track that sent the hot-wheels flying across our living room). He was constantly looking to learn.


As adults, the need for the next challenge, or to learn the next thing starts to fade.  Why don’t we want to learn new things all the time? Is it because the prospect of learning a new skill is daunting, sometimes confronting and just a little too scary? Think back to the time you learnt how to drive… not necessarily the most pleasant or fun experience, was it? Guess what – our brain remembers this too. It remembers how awkward and uncomfortable it was and brings those feelings right back up to the surface every time we even think of learning something new. Life also gets really hectic and we may not feel like we have capacity to take on anything new at all.


You may have seen evidence of this in your team…  They are coming to work, day to day, trudging along, going through the motions, repeating the same tasks the same way because that’s “just the way it’s always been done”. These may be technical experts that are excellent at what they do, but by going through their job on autopilot and becoming complacent, your staff are at risk of getting left behind.


Experts in a field don’t get to experience the challenge and the joy of learning something new very often. The need to learn something new and practice it over again until it’s right just seems pointless when you are considered an expert or can usually delegate or outsource anything you don’t know how to do. As leaders, it is our duty to notice these behaviours in our team and provide them with the opportunities to grow and develop their skills.  Growing and developing is a by-product of learning – and without learning – your staff (and eventually you) can become bored and stale!


It is crucial to remember what it’s like to be a learner and embrace learning as part of our leadership. You can encourage your team to completely surrender to the learning experience. Provide them support and guidance when they feel the ultimate awkwardness, discomfort and frustration – get them to keep trying. Most importantly, offer them the space and time to continue to practice and hone their skills so they can really embed their learning.


The learning shouldn’t stop there. To promote a learning culture within your team, you need to become a Leader in Learning yourself… as the old saying goes, you need to “eat your own dogfood”.


Let me share with you a story on the importance of learning and how it can change your leadership without you even realising. Years ago, I did some coaching with an extremely competent, well rounded and highly sought after leader – let’s call her Genevieve. I’d previously facilitated a number of workshops that Genevieve was in so I already had a feel of the type of leader she was. Genevieve had just been promoted and put in charge of a team with significant legacy issues that were going through changes and a restructure. After she had been in the role for a few months, she decided to give call me in for a coaching session. “Kelly, I just don’t know what to do – I am so FRUSTRATED! I can’t get them to stick to anything I am trying to implement, I have tried many different tactics but nothing is working”. This extremely competent leader who was excellent at her role, had never encountered a team going through change before. Genevieve was feeling frustrated, anxious and stressed. After a few coaching sessions, I gave Genevieve some strategies for her to work towards implementing and we co-facilitated a workshop. Over the next 6 months and a lot of patience, resilience and determination from Genevieve, things started to smooth out.


Fast forward to last year, “Hey Kelly, Great to speak to you. I’m over at XYZ company now and I’ve been put in charge of a merged team after a restructure. I’d love to get you in to co-facilitate a workshop” explains Genevieve. Turns out that she has once again been promoted and is in an almost identical situation to a few years ago – a team with legacy issues who are resentful about going through change. After meeting with Genevieve, it was almost like she was a new person – the new skills she learnt years ago through the strategies on how to deal with teams going through change had stuck. She’d continued to try new ways, find out what worked and continued to seek a new challenge to enhance her leadership skills. When I came in for the workshop, the team was about three times the size as the previous one and Genevieve’s attitude had completely changed, her frustration levels were barely registering and she was nowhere near as stressed. We co-facilitated the workshop and Genevieve’s skills shone through. By the end I must have looked like a bit of a weirdo – I was smiling because it was so wonderful to see a true Leader in Learning.


How long has it been since you have learnt something new? Be honest. Many leaders ‘talk the talk’ and say how important it is to learn and acquire new skills. The reality is, they don’t embrace learning at all.


In business today, with increased competition, emerging technologies and the constant flow of information coming at us from all angles, it is increasingly important for leaders and their teams to stay relevant.


My challenge to you is to learn something new – why not encourage your team to as well. Adapt, grow and push through that frustration together! Want to find out more? Click here to download my eBook, Leaders in Learning free for a limited time!