THE BLOG
08/01/2013 04:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

What Does My Childhood Have to Do With My Leadership?

"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 are 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 or 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 in adults. 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.

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. Come explore with us. The next one is February 19-27, 2014.