On a recent trip to Florida, I had the chance to observe children at play. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. What struck me immediately was just how congruent their behaviors were with those of leaders we are asked to coach and train: low emotional intelligence, poor listening skills, weak self-control, difficulty collaborating, inability to read the audience, and even a desire to cheat. On top of this, they were surrounded by overly ambitious parents pushing them to achieve individually. I thought, “No wonder so many leaders behave the way they do!”
The experience gave me fresh context for our work in simulation workshops and executive coaching. We are helping leaders move beyond behaviors learned in childhood that still linger, surfacing at inappropriate times. When children are confronted with the challenges of youth, they develop coping mechanisms that protect them from harm. These protective behaviors work well at home, in the classroom and on the playing field. They are not helpful in adult business leadership positions.
It’s no wonder that it takes work to teach leaders to listen carefully, act thoughtfully, react in a measured way, embrace feedback and behave for the broader good of the organization. The inability to do these things well often presents itself as a lack of emotional intelligence or executive presence. Underlying these symptoms is an innate immaturity that, once explained in a non-threatening way, and addressed through training or coaching can be reversed. Once leaders get it, growing up emotionally, the changes are likely to last, particularly where the broader leadership team is taught to exhibit the right behaviors. This helps build a culture of self-awareness and emotional intelligence that will pay big dividends.