What Leaders Can Learn From a 3-Year-Old

My title may seem playful and provocative, but it’s intended quite literally and seriously. In fact, it represents the core insight I drew from a recent moment of reflection after observing a three-year-old. Let me explain. 

Being a grandparent of three little ones, I’ve been given a fresh opportunity to watch three-year-old behavior. The difference: Now I am often free to observe them without any parental duty of oversight, intervention, or care. Here’s what I was noticing most recently. 

In one moment he is talking spontaneously about what’s on his mind. It could be in dialogue with his mummy or more in the form of a running commentary as he interacts with his toys. Then, as his mummy initiates interaction with him, and especially if she suggests some direction for the play or in-process activity, he will assert his capacity for control with gusto. Often, this begins with, “No mummy.” He is claiming power. 

When mummy accommodates his assertion of control and simply plays along, offering her observations and expressing interest in the objects of their shared attention, the child may suddenly ask, “Why mummy?” He’s changed his tune. His spontaneous expression of curiosity contains an implicit admission that mummy probably knows more than he does, things that he would also like to know and better understand. 

What we can learn from this three-year-old is the natural ease with which he expresses two developmental needs: first, the need to take charge and actively shape his experience; and second, the curiosity and desire to learn, which require that he reveal his ignorance. The other thing we should notice is that these needs manifest in the safety of a caring relationship with his mother, someone whose intentions and love he trusts.  

No Mummy & Why Mummy 

What we witness here is the expression of recently discovered capacities for Autonomy and Initiative. These capacities underlie development of Will (autonomy) and Purpose (initiative). Both are necessary if we are to cultivate a potent sense of agency. Good parenting encourages development of these virtues. It also corrects their excesses, i.e., willfulness and stubbornness. As Aristotle taught long ago, virtue in all things consists in moderation as regulated by wisdom.  

Aristotle, like modern-day expert in psychosocial development, Erik Erikson, believed that in the early years, regulation by wisdom is contributed by parents, in the family. When children learn from experience, constructive feedback, and corrective guidance, their capacities for agency matures. But, if they’re not encouraged, if parents are dismissive, domineering, or judgmental, children are likely to experience feelings of fear, shame, and impotence that suppress agency.   

It’s a funny thing, when children learn that they cannot safely assert autonomy and initiative in their voice (including “no mummy”), we notice that they are also less likely to express curiosity (“why mummy”). What suppresses expression of agency in this way is fear. What liberates its expression is a special kind of love. This love manifests as an abiding presence that is there to encourage. It’s also as a safe harbor to return to when one suffers failures or is overwhelmed. 

This special kind of love augments the child’s emotional and intellectual capacities to sort out frustrating and overwhelming experiences, to gain fresh perspective, to regain confidence, and to venture back out into the world. The resilience achieved in this parent-child interaction is internalized as a stock of wisdom and a growing independent capacity for perspective-taking and judgment. The “training wheels” are taken off. The child is able to ride the bike herself.  

Lessons We Carry into Adulthood 

Our felt needs to assert agency and our curiosity to learn and grow are vital, co-equal forces that promote healthy, prosocial development throughout life. Similarly, our experiences of fear and our needs for love and encouragement are perennial. And, of course, that means that our capacity to draw upon relationships and helpful relational dynamics to cope with periods of acute challenge is also of continuing importance. 

This applies to us as individual leaders and to our role in encouraging the development of others, especially emerging leaders. To deny or suppress notice of our fears is to lose data that alert us to concerns that need to be understood and addressed. To stubbornly persist in actions that are not working is no less maladaptive than “bad” behavior in a young child. But as with the child, the corrective intervention should not serve to shame, but to redirect the person. 

A difference in adulthood, is that we are often able to catch ourselves staying with a course of action or ways of behaving that are maladaptive. If not totally from self-awareness, we often have others who signal to us, even if subtly, nonverbally, and gently, that what we are doing is not working. In these moments, we must remind ourselves that deficiencies are merely a sign that we are mortal, imperfect. And If that comes as a surprise, we’ve got a different problem!

In closing, I would remind you that dialogue with another person – whether it is a spouse, colleague, boss, or perhaps a professional coach – can be just that source of “moderation regulated by wisdom” that Aristotle advised. But we need to do is decide which we fear the most, failing in our role and duties or admitting that we need help. Agency without curiosity and openness to learning (humility) is foolhardy. Believing we can do it all is hubris, which as Greek tragedy suggests, never ends well.

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com or phone at 401.885.1631.