“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…to leave the world a better place…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet, Lecturer and Essayist 1803-1882)
The above is one of my favourite quotes and it also summarises some of the wonderful experiences I was given when I spoke to pupils aged 11 and 12 at a school in West Sussex, England.
When everyone seems to be complaining about their lot, or expressing apprehension about the future, it was a delight and a privilege to spend a couple of hours with a group of optimistic and inquisitive school children. I was invited to speak to them as part of a triumvirate of orators (namely a bishop representing Spiritual Leadership, an army colonel on behalf of Military Leadership and myself as the voice of Business). I am fortunate to be invited to speak at a number of conferences and events during each year, but I must confess that few have had me so nervous beforehand – I knew that this was the first experience that most of these children would have of a person explaining aspects of business (a topic most of them anticipated to be boring) and that I was an ambassador for the adult world. Unlike regular conference attendees, these pupils were not jaded, they had not heard what I had to say before, and I wanted to leave them with a lasting impression of the power of good leadership and its value within a commercial environment. I also knew that, if I got my message wrong, I could potentially put them off business for life.
My eldest son was down from university for Reading Week (not something I had in my day) and he agreed to escort me. He found hitherto undiscovered skills with a flip chart and was great at bridging the age gap and putting the children at their ease. After a lifetime of challenging me, he was good at encouraging others to speak out and argue against me. We kicked off with a group warm-up exercise that enhanced individual awareness and also made everyone think about the traits required to lead. I then asked the children to call out words that they thought described a leader – as I expected, they came up with a list of attributes (as opposed to skills or knowledge). With the exception of “cunning”, most words were descriptive of a person who is open, honest and inspirational. I believe that Leadership is rooted in personal attitudes and approaches and that these need to be based on values. For these to work within a business context, an individual leader’s values need to resonate with those of his/her employer. Without any guidance from me, it was clear that the pupils instinctively felt the same way. There followed a debate over whether leaders are born or can be made, with passionate arguments voiced from the floor. The children were happy for me to test their thinking and we had a great discussion. I was concerned that they thought that “diligent study and following the prescribed route to the top” was the only route, so I then held a short quiz. See if you can guess the identity of each of these embryonic but now well known leaders (DM me on Twitter (@kategl), message me on LinkedIn or Facebook or simply drop me an email and I will give you the answers):
1. Born to mixed nationality parents, she moved around the UK as a child, while her father relocated to various areas in the South West to secure work. Her mother died when this person was in her mid twenties. She was devastated and fled England. She found a job in Portugal, where she met a man, married and had a daughter within eighteen months of arrival. The marriage lasted barely a year. She returned to the UK, without her former husband, but, being jobless with a small child and unable to secure work, she relied on state welfare support. Her situation caused her to sink into depression and she become suicidal.
2. Born in the East End of London, he was the youngest of four children – his childhood nickname was “Mopsy” due to his thick, unruly hair. His father was a tailor, his mother didn’t work and money was tight for the family. He made some extra cash by boiling and selling beetroot on a stall in a market. He left school at sixteen. Worked briefly in the Civil Service before leaving to “do his own thing” selling car aerials and other goods from a van (that he bought with his £100 life savings).
3. Of mixed race parentage (his parents married when his mother was already pregnant with him), his parents divorced when he was three. His mother remarried an Indonesian student and the family relocated to Indonesia when he was six. He lived in Indonesia until he was eleven, when he returned to his birthplace to live with and be raised by his grandparents. As a way of escaping who he was, when a teenager he started drinking alcohol and using marijuana and cocaine – not something he does anymore.
4. Born to an unwed student, he was put up for adoption and, much to his biological mother’s concern, was taken in by a modest couple who had started work straight after school rather than studying for degrees. Initially he did badly at school until inspired by an exceptional teacher who bribed him into learning with sweets and money. As a child he loved making self-assembly kits. His first business was illegal – a device to defraud phone companies, which he and a friend sold to students. After school he went to college but dropped out after a couple of months. He became interested in eastern mysticism and fasting (a habit he continued as he grew older) and occasionally used drugs such as LSD. Broke, he got work with a video games company. According to his supervisor, he was often rude and un-washed, so he was transferred onto the night shift. He started a company with his best friend. It was successful for a while within a niche market. After initial growth the business began to lose direction and, after losing a power struggle with the directors of the business, he had to leave.
5. Born to wealthy parents (his father was a successful barrister and his mother a former airline hostess), he is dyslexic and was beaten at prep school for not being able to read. He was sent to boarding school aged thirteen. After a couple of years he was expelled for going out of school at night with the headmaster’s daughter, but eventually he was allowed to return. He was not an accomplished student (although a good sportsman), but he was popular and had ideas on how he could make money (his parents refused to fund these “hare-brained schemes”, but he got some of their friends, including my father, to give him money to get his initial ideas off the ground). After the first two ventures his headmaster commented “Congratulations! I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire”. He was quite wild (taking drugs and partying heavily) and thought you should do what you could to succeed. As a result he was imprisoned for a short period of time for tax evasion.
To stop my audience from thinking that a troubled start is required for success, we moved on to consider the Leadership Pipeline, as defined by Ram Charan and Stephen Trotter – looking at the personal skills required to progress from managing yourself to running an enterprise. The suggestions and enthusiasm from my audience was infectious and the talk flowed. We all enjoyed the discussion and there was a natural progression of the conversation into looking at modern working practices (moving “from hierarchies to wire-archies”) and the differences between management and leadership. At the end there was a torrent of questions and eventually I had to call time.
I have never spoken at a conference or event before where I have subsequently received a letter from each attendee saying what they liked and learned from my presentation – the questions have continued by post and I am in the process of responding. I was and am inspired by the children’s enthusiasm and the genuine interest they showed in what I had to say. They reminded me that it is good to have your thinking challenged and that it can lead to better understanding; they also reminded me that life can and should be enjoyable. We all had a great time and I probably learned more from them and their attitudes than perhaps they gained from me. I have tried to furnish them with an understanding of the drivers behind successful businesses, what is needed to be a good leader and to inspire them for potential roles in business in the future. I hope some of what we talked about sticks. As the American journalist, Hodding Carter once wrote
“There are two lasting bequests that we can give our children; one is roots and the other is wings”.
Judging from what they have said and written to me, I am sure that they all have wonderful futures ahead of them.