Childhood Leadership Lessons We All Learned the Hard Way
The life-long values that stay with you and permeate every aspect of your personal and professional life, will always be the ones you learn the hard way. Often with sadness, anger or even humiliation in tow, it is the difficult life lessons you learn that form the foundation of your leadership values system.
Put yourself in my shoes. It is 1 pm on a Tuesday and you are 12 years old, currently sitting in a police station, charged with the theft of a video game – for a console you don’t even possess – after you caved to peer pressure from your mates. All caught up? Now watch me suffer and learn.
I’m about to call my single mother at work, who is currently 30km away, to collect me from the station. It rings once, then twice. Mum picks up, and I explain in a regretful tone that I have been arrested and that she has to sign me out from the police. She listens intently, pauses, and then replies… “I don’t have time for this right now.” The line goes dead. I stare at the officer and mutter, “Guess she is not picking me up.”
Leadership lesson one: accountability. Who else should take responsibility for your action but you? Think of the consequences through before you act.
Looking back, my mother was a rising leader in her class and taught me the attitude of leadership. An East German refugee and a single parent with a teenager in tow without a support network, she raised and taught me what it means to have the attitude of a leader: ruthless decisiveness blended with empathetic openness.
I recall it as if it were yesterday, too young to be left alone and too little money for a babysitter. Often, I became an involuntary sidekick in my mother’s daily missions.
The mission today: confronting her boss at the insurance company she worked for about the inequality and sexism she experiences daily. Waiting patiently outside the office, I listened as the muffled voices grew louder and louder. Suddenly, the door opens.
My mother steps out, gives me a comforting smile and in a warm voice says, “We are leaving.” As we waited for the lift to arrive, I could feel the tense energy underneath the calm air of confidence my mother radiates.
The lift arrives and we step inside. As the doors close, my mother opens up, bursting into uncontrollable tears, sagging to the floor of the elevator. I don’t understand what is happening. Three seconds later, she catches herself, hugs me and wipes the tears from her face. She takes a deep breath, exhales loudly, looks at me, and says in a confident voice, “Mama needs another job, fast.”
Leadership lesson two: be vulnerable. Allow yourself to have emotions? Showing vulnerability is being human, and we must ride the emotional waves with empathy. The worst is to bottle them up until the seams burst unexpectedly and probably at the worst time.
I ask what happened since I was taught to be curious and have a need to understand. She calmly explains that sometimes you have to do the right thing and say no even if the odds are stacked against you. You must respect yourself.
Leadership lesson three: have integrity. Who are we but the accumulation of our actions? So do the right thing.
Bad things happen because good people do nothing. You must do what is right and you must speak your mind and remember, never deny yourself your own support and empathy if no one is backing you. Respect yourself, appreciate yourself and develop yourself. How else do you make a difference in the world, but by leading by example?
What did I learn in my years growing up with her, you ask? And how does that influence my actions as a business leader today?
From an early age, I was accountable for my actions and would take responsibility – no matter the circumstance. If I walked it in, I had to walk it out. Showing vulnerable emotions is not a weakness but a realisation that we are human – myself included. Overall, I must exercise integrity, always. I am not what I say but I am what I do.
If I could give the 12-year-old me at the station any advice at all it would be to develop accountability and decisiveness. To always approach life with open empathy and stand up for what I believe in, then act on seeing it through with integrity.