How Being a ‘Good Kid’ Can Make You a Bad Boss

We tend to believe that good behavior in childhood sets us up for success later in life. If we follow the rules, do what we’re told, we’ll definitely succeed, get promoted, and become a great leader. That’s why the central tenet of a new book by leadership expert and consultant Nik Kinley and IMD Business School professor Shlomo Ben-Hur is: Rewriting Your Leadership Code: How Your Childhood Made You the Leader You Are and What You Can Do About It, is so intriguing. In many ways, it suggests the opposite.

“Studies have shown that children who are praised for their caring, altruistic, and kind behavior are more likely to continue to behave in that way as adults,” Kinley says. “That sounds great, but it means you become really good at being liked. As a result, you can become Also “It’s nice, to the point of wanting to avoid tension and not wanting to upset people. You might have a hard time turning around poor performance and implementing unpopular change.”

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Leadership is of course often about making unpopular choices and realizing that you can’t be liked all the time or, more accurately, that prioritizing popularity over good behavior is an unwise choice. Another “good kid” tendency that can serve you well as a leader is following the rules. Again, this seems like a huge positive, but a closer look reveals a potential lack of lateral thinking.

“The obedient child who is very focused on what his parents want tends to be very good at focusing on what his boss wants, what his company wants, and then doing whatever it takes to make it happen,” Kinley says. “Then he becomes very good at meeting the expectations of the company.” wannabut without necessarily thinking about what that means needs. At higher levels this can become a big problem.

Rewriting Your Leadership Code

Rewriting Your Leadership Code

Kinley and Ben-Hur conducted extensive research for their book after discovering that the leaders he coached failed to implement his methods in times of crisis or workplace stress. Instead, they relied on their instincts. Fascinatingly, much of that instinct is influenced by our childhood. Their years of research concluded that much of our outlook (pessimistic or optimistic) and leadership style (authoritarian or libertarian) is due to our parents. As our earliest leadership role models, they can dictate how we govern.

The biggest mistakes Kinley has seen clients make—including high-profile CEOs and founders—are related to “small, everyday decisions and personal impact.” Both of these can be influenced by how we were conditioned as children. The former can be influenced by our “good-child” tendencies: the desire to please others or be obedient, while the latter stems largely from parental influence: How do we relate to others, especially our direct reports?

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“Leaders with authoritarian parents are more likely to be directive or punitive, and are more likely to become critical and controlling themselves, because they are more likely to be motivated by fear of failure,” Kinley says.

He divides leaders into two categories. Promotion-oriented leaders, who are more positive, tend to have emotionally supportive and caring parents, often attentive to their every need. They may find criticism difficult and, like “good kids,” may not handle tough decisions well.

Leaders who are more prevention-oriented, more cautious and risk-averse, are more likely to have been subjected to stricter discipline as children. “They don’t want to make mistakes, they want everything to go well,” he explains. “That’s because with critical, authoritarian parents, they’ve always been afraid of making mistakes and upsetting them. That usually involves punishment or even something as simple as fear of disapproval.”

“Once you understand where these instincts come from, you can begin to self-regulate.”

These learned instincts, developed from a young age, are what we rely on in times of stress at work – which are unfortunately more common than we would like to believe. So how can we “unlearn” these instincts, if they were ingrained at such a formative time? As always, knowledge is power and once you understand where these instincts come from – and, more importantly, what triggers them – you can begin to self-regulate.

“You have to take steps to interrupt the old behavior, or at least not trigger it,” Kinley says. “It can be as simple as telling yourself, ‘That’s just my pessimism talking,’ or it can be as simple as standing up and physically interrupting the behavior, feeling, or thought. The second thing is to learn to anticipate the situation by putting your solutions in place before you find yourself under pressure, because often, acting in the moment doesn’t help. The third thing is to use the people around you, your team, to balance you out: give them permission to call you on things…”

Untangling the ingrained instincts of our childhood is no easy task, but as Kinley points out, understanding their roots, their consequences, and the keys to circumventing them can be not only fascinating, but also an essential tool for success.

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