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Nik Kinley

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How your childhood affects your leadership skills

Did you know that early childhood experiences can shape the leaders we become? Leadership expert and consultant Nik Kinley and IMD Business School Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur explain how our understanding of this can help optimise performance under pressure.
child in black jacket and blue shorts holding green plastic bucket - childhood leadership

We all know our childhood helps shape the adult we become. But we tend to underestimate just how much our early experiences shape us, and just how much our pasts continue to affect how we behave today. 

It's a topic that shaped the research for the new book I co-authored with IMD Business School Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur, Rewriting Your Leadership Code, and we found that this challenge is probably truer for leaders than anyone else.

On the one hand, leaders have to present an image of being in control. Yet all the evidence suggests they have less time than ever to be thoughtful and deliberate in their leadership. 

Average team sizes have doubled in recent decades. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of leaders say the number of daily decisions they make has significantly increased in recent years. And on average, leaders report that 72% of their time is spent running on automatic, moving from meeting to meeting with little time to think things through.

That's a problem, because it's in moments like these that we are most susceptible to the influence of the past. And two of the most important examples of this for leaders are how optimistic they are and how well they can maintain their composure.

Leaders have to present an image of being in control

Optimism vs pessimism and leadership

We can all be optimistic at times – hopeful and confident about the future. But we can also all be pessimistic – concerned the worst will happen. Which we are can be influenced by the situation we're in, but most people tend to be one more than the other. 

Studies show optimism and pessimism involve different parts of the brain and that which you are is partially genetically inherited

However, the biggest determinant is early childhood experiences and three in particular are important in shaping us:

  • How positive our parents were. Even when we don't see ourselves as particularly optimistic or pessimistic, we tend to adopt a similar level of optimism or pessimism as our parents
  • How affectionate and sensitive our parents were to our emotional needs. When parents are sensitive and give a lot of affection, children tend to develop into optimistic adults. Where warmth and sensitivity are lacking, children tend to develop more pessimistic attitudes
  • How strict our parents were. Where parents are more authoritarian and directive, their children are more likely to grow up to be pessimists. Children of permissive parents, meanwhile, tend to become optimists

Both optimism and pessimism have a range of benefits and downsides. But for leaders, the biggest impact these tendencies have is on their decision making. Optimists tend to be better and faster at spotting opportunities, but are more prone to underestimating challenges and less able to take into account negative views that differ from their own. 

Pessimists, meanwhile, are generally better at spotting risks, but can be more cautious when setting goals and fail to see opportunities.

Given time to think things through, leaders can limit the impact of these tendencies and the biases they bring. But under pressure and robbed of time, they are more likely to be guided by them in their leadership. Sometimes they will fit the moment, but other times they won't. And when this happens, poor decision making can be the result.

Children of permissive parents ... tend to become optimists

How self-regulation impacts leadership

The second critical way our pasts can affect us as leaders is through what psychologists call self-regulation: our ability to suppress or hide how we are feeling. People who regulate their emotions a lot and don't tend to show them are called internalisers. Those who don't regulate themselves strongly and instead openly show their emotions are called externalisers

Intriguingly, there is compelling evidence that whether we are an internaliser or externaliser is mostly genetically inherited. But childhood experience does also play a part, and in four ways:

  • Children are more likely to become externalisers when they grow up in family environments that arouse a lot of intense emotions in them
  • Watching how their parents express emotions, children are more likely to become externalisers if their parents are emotionally expressive, and more likely to become internalisers when their parents rarely show emotion
  • When parents minimise or ignore how their children express their emotions, those children are more likely to become externalisers, while those with parents who scold them for expressing emotions are more likely to become internalisers
  • Finally, children who grow up with parents who actively help them to reflect on and understand what they are feeling tend to be more able to regulate those emotions 

Just as with optimism and pessimism, our ability to self-regulate our emotions can be critical to our effectiveness under pressure. Internalisers tend to be good at focusing in on things, ignoring distractions and being objective. 

But they can also suppress valuable intuitions, slowing decision making, and can find it harder to recognise and understand emotions in others. Externalisers, meanwhile, are great at injecting energy into proceedings and tend to be better at relying on their intuition. 

But they can be overly influenced by their instincts and emotions, decreasing the thoroughness of their analysis, and they can fail to control the impact of their emotions on others.

Our ability to self-regulate our emotions can be critical to our effectiveness under pressure

How to manage your past under pressure

So, increasingly running on automatic, leaders need to be more aware of what this personally means for them and their leadership in terms of the underlying tendencies within them that become more influential in these moments. 

And having become more aware, they then need a strategy to manage these influences. Our research on how leaders can optimise their performance under pressure has revealed two simple strategies leaders can use.

Physically interrupt the past

First, you need to learn to recognise and literally interrupt your underlying tendencies with a physical action. If you feel yourself being particularly optimistic or pessimistic, change what you are thinking about or discussing. 

If you are an internaliser, name how you feel about events. And if you are an externaliser, interrupt the emotion you are expressing. It can help here to have a simple action or phrase you use to do this. 

Something as simple as standing up or saying to yourself: "This is just my pessimism talking". Whatever it is, have a routine that physically interrupts the tendency.

If you're an optimist, ask the most negative pessimist in your team for their views

Use others to create balance

The second thing is to do the opposite of whatever your tendency is. If you're an optimist, focus on risks. And if you're a pessimist, consider what opportunities you might be missing. 

If you're an internaliser, ask people how they are feeling. And if you're an externaliser, focus on reducing the emotion in the room. And critically, because you aren't naturally good at things, use other people to help you. 

So, if you're an optimist, ask the most negative pessimist in your team for their views. If you're an externaliser, ask something like "I'm feeling X; how might we approach this if we were feeling Y".

Do all of this proactively

The problem with managing moments of pressure is that they are moments of pressure, and by the time we get into them, it's too late to think about how to behave. 

So, task your team to bring the balance you need in such moments before they occur. For instance, tell them, "I see us doing X, or if Y is happening, I want you to do Z". In other words, set things up so that when you're in these pressure leadership moments, the people around you automatically bring the balance you need.

If you enjoyed this, read: What is a good leader and how do you become one?

Author Profile Picture
Nik Kinley

Consultant & coach

Read more from Nik Kinley
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