THE BLOG
07/22/2010 12:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Are the Most Important Leadership Skills You Learned as a Kid?

I'm a premature grandpa. At age 49, I've got a couple of grandsons, Deshawn and Danari, who are 15 and 13 and you might as well call them "Generation Why?" because they're at that age when they're full of questions. While we were riding the rollercoaster at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk about a week ago, Danari asked me what were the most important lessons I learned when I was a kid? I was tempted to take a page out of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but a teenager doesn't want to hear vague platitudes like "clean up your own mess" or "say you're sorry when you hurt somebody." No, what Danari wanted to know is which classes had the most profound impact on me as a leader today? Good question.

It's natural to believe that reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic are the fundamentals for a successful adulthood as communication and logic are hallmarks of great leadership. And, of course, I learned about the value of teamwork on the playground in P.E. and came face-to-face with winning and losing and good sportsmanship, all of which are essential values of competitive capitalism. But, those classes are too obvious as answers to Danari's question. I spent some time deeply pondering what skills I built in the classroom all those years ago that truly serve me in ways I could never have imagined. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that three particular junior high school classes have the most relevance to my day-to-day leadership skill set today.

First, let's start with the worst. Actually, Ada Wurst was my Art teacher and she gave me the only B I received in junior high, so she taught me a lesson in humility (yes, my definition of being "type A" was to get all A's in school). She also figured out that I was color blind -- I couldn't see those numbers in the color bubbles. Flunking color (but with a reason) made me feel a little better as I just thought I might just be color dumb. But, most importantly, Mrs. Wurst helped me to see the genius in being able to see patterns that aren't obvious to everyone else. Learning to make art was a qualitative process and I learned that qualitative intelligence depends on a nuanced perception of the qualities one encounters or creates. So much of leadership today is judgment, not calculation... creativity, not analysis. Mrs. Wurst taught me the art of conceptual blockbusting, how to truly "think outside the box" and color outside the lines.

Secondly, I have to nominate Mr. Worthington and his Health class. When most of us think of health class, we imagine it as purely an exercise in human biology. Yes, we did learn about the reproductive organs and where babies come from (progressively more important for seventh graders these days) and about puberty, nutrition, and how to take care of oneself. But, our greatest learning was about how to create well-being beyond our body. Mr. Worthington helped me to see that one's physical body quite often is just a manifestation of what's going on inside emotionally and maybe even spiritually. Health -- broadly defined -- is mind, body, and spirit. And, that's just as true in a company as it is for an individual. Mr. Worthington reminded us that we could "be all that we could be" only a couple of years after Dr. Abraham Maslow had proclaimed that in his books about the hierarchy of needs and the U.S. Army adopted it as its advertising slogan in the 1980's. Mr. Worthington taught me about my worth.

Finally, if there's one skill I learned in eighth grade that serves me well today, it's time management. And, one of my hidden time management skills is that I type at a speed that's probably about twice that of the typical CEO. Profuse thanks needs to go to my spinster Typing teacher Ms. Binns (yes, these names are, in fact, real). This cranky old battle axe sent more than a few of us into tears as she exhorted us on how typing was such a pivotal part of our lives. I remember one smart ass student who once asked her, "Why do we need to type when our fathers have secretaries and typing pools that handle all that clerical stuff?" Ms. Binns peered over her glasses with a mean stare and said, "Don't assume you'll always have someone to type your letters for you!" Clearly, this woman had a crystal ball into the era of PC's and iPads when a leader who's an expert typist can shave off a couple of hours of slaving in front of the computer compared to the guy who chose "Metals" class instead of Typing. Ms. Binns' Typing class should have been subtitled "Time Management."

Mrs. Wurst. Mr. Worthington. Ms. Binns. Who knew that the perspectives and skills you introduced me to would serve me so well today as a leader? Wherever you are, I just want to say thanks for helping me have an artful view of the world, a healthy and holistic view of myself and my company, and an expeditious ability to communicate in writing.