Understanding childhood influences on leadership

Wednesday July 1 2020



When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put the ways of childhood behind me,” or so St Paul told us when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in late 56 AD. By these words did the great Apostle intend to insinuate that we completely shed off our childhood when we become of age?

 Every day we live we come across learning opportunities and lessons. Since childhood we have responded to the influence that our parents, teachers and other members of our extended families have had in our lives.

As adults, we more consciously recognise leadership lessons as they appear through among others, classes, meetings, conversations, reading and observation. Some of these insights stay with us while others slip away with time but one thing remains intrinsic in our lives, the ingrained leadership traits that we exhibit unconsciously occasioned by our childhood experiences, instilling lessons that can shape your ability as a leader to have a stronger, more positive leadership impact.

While it’s a fact that from childhood onwards our brains develop as we grow older, our early interpretations of events and people form beliefs that we carry into adulthood. It is in childhood that we start to create a self-identity and shape our leadership traits. Little management research and literature is available on the importance of early influences on leadership styles however some academics like McCall’s (2004) views on the subject are worthy of scholarly investigation as he posits that, ‘’The primary source of learning to lead, to the extent that leader-ship can be learned, is experience”. It would appear to me therefore that all those childhood experiences come into play. Some aspects of leadership are more or less fixed at a young age while others are able to be developed from well into adult life.

Similarly, a research conducted by Schneider, Paul, White and Holcombe (1999) supports the idea that childhood and adolescence affect adult workplace leadership behaviours as does Murphy and John-son (2011)’s assertion that genetics, temperament, birth order, parenting styles, and attachment are major influences on leadership development. The duo stresses the importance of considering early influences in a child’s environment that may enhance the skills demonstrated by a leader.



 Now, so far all this sounds like an extract from an MBA thesis, and may therefore seem like it has nothing to do with you especially if you are not writing a thesis of your own on the subject or vying for any leader-ship position (forgetting that leader-ship applies to every aspect of every body’s life – a subject for another day) but if you remember that school yard bully who harassed you each time you met in the school com-pound or that guy (or young lady) who always volunteered to read the English teacher’s passage or solve the Math teacher’s problem, look around you and see where they are today.

That should bring it home. This argument is plausible particularly when we consider how some of the world’s top leaders were influenced by their domestic backgrounds. For instance, Nelson Mandela’s early life moulding, infused with intellectual-ism, was in the boxing ring, while Barack Obama confesses in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, that his famed virtues of courage, values and leadership were inspired by his ‘personal interior journey in search for his father. It’s no secret how they both turned out as leaders. We are all a part of our community and extended families. As such we are both individually and collectively responsible for mentoring and bringing up those around us, or if you have not attained that status in life yet, for the way in which you turn out yourself. Following the logic in the foregoing, the way in which the leaders of tomorrow perform their leadership roles will very much be determined by the way in which we mould them today.

Though recognising that success, as we know it, particularly in leadership, is much more multi-dimensional, I believe that key childhood moments are critical in shaping a good leader. By tapping into their inner child, leaders can blend the bold thinking and actions of child-hood while maintaining responsibility for great actions today. In conclusion therefore, I believe that had Paul written to the Corinthians with this in mind by so doing recognizing that his adolescent life’s hobby of persecuting early Christians played a big role in the making of the great Apostle that he had become, history would recite quite a different quote today.

Mark Ocitti is Managing Director of Serengeti Breweries Limited