What does my childhood have to do with my leadership?

By Shayne Hughes

“That’s just the way he is.”

How many times have you heard or uttered that phrase?

John is a risk-averse CFO, unwilling to make a decision without all the facts. Linda, in operations, is conflict-averse; everyone knows she won’t address personnel problems or speak up in meetings. Only God knows what she’s really thinking.

And then there’s Mike, the judgmental and sarcastic CEO. Don’t ever reveal a weakness in his presence.

We tend to use shorthand labels to summarize people as their most prominent dysfunction. We see them as static beings acting illogically. Hidden is how these personality tendencies are the tip of the iceberg of their inner emotional landscape.

Let’s take John. We get aggravated because his indecision and focus on what won’t work puts the brakes on everything. We don’t have access to his childhood, when his father bet the family business — and lost everything. The shock of going from affluence to poverty has never left him.

Linda’s coping skills developed early. Her father was an angry alcoholic. She learned early on to keep her opinions to herself and never attract unwanted negative attention.

Mike’s family was large and competitive. A thick skin and a harsh comeback ensured his older siblings didn’t mess with him.

We each have a personal survival system that functions seamlessly and automatically. We custom-designed this system over years of early experiences, refining it into a predictable set of kneejerk defense mechanisms we use to avoid unwanted situations or fears. Some leaders recognize these behaviors as limiting and try to work on them. Others mistakenly believe it’s the secret to their success. In both cases, they are responding reactively to life with a primitive set of behavioral options. Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this our ‘anxiety management system’.

Do you know your personal survival system? What unconscious filters influence how you view the world, interpret events and judge people?

If you know your limiting behaviors as a leader, you’re one step ahead of most people. Perhaps you’ve noticed, however, that knowing you should behave differently is insufficient. Making dramatic adjustments to your default leadership style requires unwiring the original driver. What set this system into motion in the first place? The clues lie in your childhood.

Some see this as uncomfortable, but for most, it’s profoundly transformative. It’s an opportunity to know ourselves more deeply and act in the present moment with greater clarity and perspective. It’s important at home as we strive to raise children to be healthy adults. It’s important in the workplace where the constant stress of demands, deadlines, and workplace politics conspire to throw us into fight/flight mode. A transcendent 21st century leader can put aside their personal triggers, and view situations from outside their personal prism. Only then can we lead with a global, diverse perspective.

Here’s an exercise to begin exploring how your childhood influences your adult behavior and leadership style:

  1. Without censoring, make a list of every event you recall from your childhood, negative and positive; capture the unpleasant ones in particular. They don’t need to be dramatic — being teased by a classmate, or told by your parents your report card wasn’t good enough. We remember childhood events if they have emotional resonance — that’s what makes them significant.
  2. For each event, what conclusions did you draw when it occurred? It may be hazy in your consciousness. Try to remember the emotion you felt in that moment. For example, if you didn’t get in the school talent show, maybe you decided you were untalented, unattractive or unwanted.
  3. On a separate page, list all of your current anxieties, large and small. At work, with your boss, in meetings, leading projects; at home, with your spouse or partner, children, etc. Focus closely on ‘self-worth’ anxieties — not being liked, respected, loved; feeling weak or needy.
  4. Now go back to your list of events and conclusions and see what connections you find. Don’t look for what sounds logical, but for what makes intuitive, emotional sense. For example, when I was 11, my stepfather got angry when I asked him why I had to eat the same food he did (he had leukemia, and followed an inedible macrobiotic diet). Terrified and hurt, I concluded, “You can’t tell people what you really think.” This event wasn’t the only reason I struggled to talk about delicate issues as an adult, but it was a crystallizing event. So, any genuine connection you make is precious, and deepens your self-awareness.

Maxie Maultsby, M.D., a pioneer in the field of Rational Behavior, describes emotions as the motor of our actions and behaviors. Unhealthy self-worth beliefs create negative emotions, which drive behavior — whether you’re aware of it or not. It allowed you to survive your childhood, but as a rule, is sub-optimal as adult. If you want to optimize your leadership potential, creating a conscious modus operandi is crucial.

Becoming familiar with your childhood unlocks your leadership in a way that no book or how-to tip can. Our greatest potential doesn’t hinge on a new skill — it’s in growing our ability to bring our fullest, highest self to every moment, challenge and relationship.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How did events in your childhood influence how you lead?

If this process seems daunting, our Personal Mastery seminar is all about giving you a personalized map of how the experiences of your past became infused with the coping strategies of your ego. Our next seminar starts June 19. Come explore with us.

  1. There are significant events that happened to me in my childhood that I still vividly remember. I’ve wondered how they affected me.

    I remember, in second grade, I had a girl friend. We were together a lot in school. Then, suddenly, she moved away, and I never saw her again. I wonder how that separation affected me in my relationships.

    I also remember meeting her father at open house one day. As he stood next to me at my desk, I looked up and saw a tall man holding a hat in a suit coat. It was a wow moment. It must have affected my perception of authority.

    But now that I have recognized these situations, what do I do with them?

  2. Shayne Hughes says:

    Great start. What you’ve listed are events that would go with step 1 above. For each of them, go through the questions on step 2. For the moment when the girl moved away, try to think of a specific moment (like when you looked up and saw her father) when you realized she had moved, or the reality of her absence hit you.

    Then, search to name the conclusion(s) you drew at that moment.

    For step 3 on anxieties, you could narrow your search by brainstorming all the anxieties you have in a) relationships (rejected, alone, not loved, hurt, abandoned, etc) and b) with authority.

    Then look for links between your conclusions and your anxieties. We won’t yet be at the stage of behavior, but the emotional thread may begin to reveal itself.

    Keep me posted!

  3. Charles says:

    Thanks for the uber-helpful post. As I have aged, it has become clear to me that I have wasted huge amounts of time responding to old fears, rather than living in the moment. I sometimes fail to accept the joys of the present, while trying to win approval from people whom I know longer even know, and who are from the distant past. What a waste. And thanks to LAL for giving me some tools to opt for living more joyfully and realistically.

  4. nate scott says:

    Thank you for this post. The examples of each workers leadership style really resonated with me as I am venturing through a new job. Using the exercise, I was able to discover some unconscious behaviors of my own. Thank you! Your post are always meaningful.

  5. Jon Scherrer says:

    This is an excellent exercise to encourage leaders to look inward. After they were comfortable with that and the mapping process of actions/reactions to unconscious filters, it would be interesting to have their work teams put together a list of ‘dysfunctions’ or stories and to map those back to filters? That would take courage.

  6. Shayne Hughes says:

    Jon, your idea is a good one. It does take courage to step into such a conversation. It can be scary to reveal our stories, significant events, filters/hot buttons to our colleagues. Especially when there isn’t trust in a team.

    We actually lead our client management teams through just such an exercise in our seminars. It is a very powerful way to ‘humanize’ others, and to understand the backstory to a colleague’s dysfunctions. That greater understanding and empathy lays the foundation for a much deeper trust. Through vulnerability we create safety and the possibility for transformative collaboration.

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