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Is your CEO just a big baby?

Jan 10, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

“Until last week, I had always thought that it was the worst CEOs that had so much in common with two-year-olds. Both groups tend to swagger round with a wide-legged gait. Both say “mine” a lot and are exceedingly bad at sharing. Both have short attention spans. Both lack common sense and have issues with listening. CEOs and toddlers are also hazy about the existence of other human beings, tending to view them as objects. They both inspire fear in the hearts of their handlers. And anyone who has observed how toddlers behave on aircraft will realise why it is a good idea for CEOs to travel in private jets.”

LUCY KELLAWAY, Financial Times (12 September 2010)

The inimitable Lucy Kellaway made me laugh out loud again recently, with an entertaining piece about the similarity between chief executives and young children.

Most of us will recognize CEOs we know who behave just like self-absorbed, spoilt children. In their world, ME is the only word worth anything. Everything must centre on them, and they will get very angry if it doesn’t. So when the toddler-CEO speaks, you must listen. But when you say something, the toddler-CEO will zone out immediately. His gaze will drift away, and he may even start playing with his smartphone/toy right there in front of you as you talk.

The toddler-CEO expects to get plenty of attention from everyone. He expects you to laugh at all his funny little utterances, and to find him amazingly clever. He expects to set everyone’s agenda every day, and to put his own activities on centre-stage. He is known to scream and throw things if he doesn’t get his way.

But as Ms Kellaway points out, that’s not the end of the story. Those of you wanting to learn some leadership lessons should pay more attention to toddlers – they have some good things to teach you as well. Here’s a small sample.

First, toddlers have great energy and enthusiasm. Once they like doing something, they really do it – with great gusto and loud laughter – and they infect others with their joy. As leaders we often fall into low-energy, depressive moments; that is precisely the time to take a leaf out of the toddler’s book and go for it with renewed zest.

Second, toddlers are naturally creative. Their minds have not yet been closed by book learning and the strictures of others. So for them the world is a blank slate. All things are possible. A sense of wonder pervades all their activities. They marvel at everything. When asked to do a task, they attack it from all directions. CEOs, pay attention here. Your minds are blocked by your MBAs and your years of experience. You think you’ve been there, done that, with every situation. You think you know exactly how it needs to be done.

Well, relax that assumption every so often and bring back your sense of wonder. Listen to the voices of others. Nothing is straightforward in business these days, and you need all the creative approaches you can find.

The last and most important lesson that a young child can impart to a leader is simply this: always ask WHY. As a leader, your primary job is to focus on Why, not What, How or When. Leaders are the custodians of the purpose of the organization; their first job is to explain why the organization does what it does. Most leaders I know don’t do this at all – they fritter away all their time commanding what needs to be done, by whom, by when and how. But none of that is motivating for employees unless the basis is clear – WHY it’s a big deal. Toddlers ask why incessantly; leaders should revisit their childhoods and recover the habit.

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