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Leadership Lessons from Kindergarten

by | Dec 23, 2022

I was talking to a client recently who was overcome with the shenanigans occurring in her organization. She bemused, “I wish they would just remember what they learned in Kindergarten.” The conversation continued as we quickly Googled, “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghums, and I began to ponder what Kindergarten could teach us about leadership. 

One doesn’t need to have direct reports to be a leader. In fact, leadership begins with one’s ability to lead themselves through the challenges of life, the impact of which cascades across everything they touch. I would argue everyone has the opportunity to be a leader.

We hear daily how the state of humanity is at a critical juncture. Divisiveness and opposition are common; families and friendships are at risk of the polarizing influence of “cancel culture;” employees are leaving organizations en masse; supply chain challenges plague every industry; anger and hatefulness are spewing from every corner. It is all impacting the way we work. 

Could it be that the answer to these troubles is found in Kindergarten? Let’s take a look at the core lessons learned in a Kindergarten classroom.

1. Share everything.

What benefit is a great idea if you keep it to yourself? Holding onto creative ideas stifles innovation. Thought partnering, brainstorming, and mind dumps are a key to generating groundbreaking strategies. Remember, Teamwork makes the Dream work

2. Play fair.

A quick dictionary search reveals the definition of “fair” to be just, equitable, honest, upright, trustworthy, impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, nondiscriminatory, and nonpartisan. It seems reasonable, then, that “playing fair” is to behave with integrity; to observe the principles of justice; to resist putting people in “Us and Them” buckets; to avoid the temptation of “right and wrong” and “good or evil.” Sit next to one another and listen, really listen to other perspectives. We sometimes refer to this as “listening to understand” as opposed to “listening to respond.”

3. Don’t hit people.

This seems simple enough — after all, it is against the law to physically assault someone. However, “hitting” can also be interpreted as back channel critical conversations about a colleague, a social media post condemning another or denouncing a point of view, elevating a hateful social argument, and/or sending texts or emails eviscerating another’s character or ability. Emotional, verbal, or psychological “hitting” can be profoundly traumatizing. Sticks and stones may in fact break bones, but words can break souls.

4. Clean up your own mess.

Mistakes happen. Sometimes we try something a bit out of the box and it fails. When courageously leading, failure is expected. In fact, some would say, “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” It’s a concept first coined by fitness guru Jillian Michaels that was rapidly assimilated into business and leadership models. So you failed — now what? It is time to be responsible for the decisions you made, accountable for the consequences, to look for the lessons learned, and to quickly adapt and iterate.

5. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Respecting the property of others is just the beginning. Looking at it a bit more broadly, another person’s story is not yours, either. In our work lives our eyes and ears may receive information in the form of rumors, assumptions, logical theories, etc. If the story is not about you, it is not yours to share.

6. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

At some point it is likely that our words and/or actions, whether intentional or not, will cause another to react negatively. Being able and willing to be accountable for your actions is paramount for leaders. Simply saying, “I apologize if my actions or inactions have caused you discomfort,” acknowledges another’s emotions showing empathy and compassion.

7. Wash your hands before you eat and flush.

At first glance, washing your hands and flushing is an obvious respectful human behavior. However, when we look at “clean” as a metaphor for intention, it gets a bit trickier. Our interactions with others, our communications and our behaviors are all motivated by our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about a situation. Those same thoughts, beliefs and feelings give rise to our intentions. Intentions are the predecessor of integrity, direct communication, problem resolution, and innovation. As a follow-worthy leader, having clean and clear intentions is paramount. To get clarity about your intentions, begin by asking yourself these questions:

•   What is the outcome I would like to see?
•   Does this outcome serve the greater good of all involved?
•   Are my thoughts in alignment with this outcome?
•   Am I approaching this situation from a place of integrity?
•   Are my words and actions clean and clear?

8. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Who doesn’t love warm cookies and a glass of cold milk? But what can they teach us about leadership? Nurturing and taking care of yourself is essential, and by being a good role model, you teach others to do the same. When your tank is full, that means you’re well fed, well rested, and you have the ingredients necessary to fully apply yourself to the task of leading. Get outside and walk at lunch; schedule a massage or coffee with a friend; listen to a favorite playlist; take a warm bath, meditate, or exercise. While those are not as tasty as cookies, they are my personal favorites. And of course, drink lots of water.

9. Live a balanced life ~ learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work a bit every day.

Each of us are unique and complex beings with loves, passions, desires, and dreams. We often refer to this as a “work-life balance.” However, I like to think of it as purely life balance. A holistic approach to life sustains us and enables us to be our best whole selves, regardless of where we are and what we are doing.

10. Take a nap every afternoon.

What do naps and NASA have in common? A study involving napping NASA pilots concluded that just 26 minutes of shuteye improved alertness up to 54% and job-performance by 34%. Additionally, power naps are said to improve memory and learning, relieve stress, boost the immune system, and elevate your mood. The benefits of a short nap are indisputable and sure to support your capability and capacity as a leader.

11. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

We humans were meant to co-create by living and navigating the world together. These past few years have challenged how we interact and connect. Yet we have all heard stories of resilience, perseverance, and the exceptional efforts to stay connected and care for one another. A follow worthy leader invests in relationships by discovering what is important to others, listening to the joys and the sufferings, expressing concern for their wellbeing, and providing support.

12. Be aware of wonder.

Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Vigilantly look for something that stands out as exceptional or that surprises you. Bring all your friends and colleagues around and share the magic with them. With each shared experience the energy is magnified and momentum is generated. Leverage that momentum to do great things.

13. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

Every day is a gift. In fact, every moment is a gift and blessings are abundant. We only need to assume that childlike curiosity and look for the ever-present wonder that life offers. Even in the most challenging times, flowers bloom, butterflies emerge, strangers offer a smile, rain falls, or the sun shines. How can you bring a random act of kindness into your daily routine to enrich someone else’s? Consider sharing a simple gift, spreading a little sunshine. The effort will not only impact the receiver but is sure to alter your day as well.

It has been a while since I was in Kindergarten, and I have to tell you this review has been insightful. Nearly everything I teach about leadership originates in one of these short lessons, and while they sound simple, the truth is they require devotion, practice, patience, and repetition. 

With the curiosity and wonder of a child, I challenge you to imagine what might be possible. How could you leverage these age-old lessons into your leadership strategy? How might you show up differently in all the important realms of your life? How might your significant relationships change? What challenge or passion would you initiate? What impact might you make?

Conscient Strategies was founded with the idea that every organization is capable of thriving through change. With a focus on strategy development, program implementation, workplace dynamics, and leadership development, Conscient Strategies equips leaders with the tools necessary to continuously navigate the constancy of change in ways that not only benefit their team, but, equally as important, their business outcomes as well. From mergers to c-suite changes to sudden or explosive growth, organizations turn to Conscient Strategies when change is threatening their financial health and cultural wellbeing.

Based in Washington, D.C., Conscient Strategies is comprised of a talented group of consultants, executive coaches, strategists, and account executives. The team has worked with organizations of all sizes in the private, federal, and non-profit sectors across the United States and Internationally.

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