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What leaders can learn from kids Add to ...

They're fearless, innovative risk takers, are constantly asking questions, learning and passing on their knowledge to others.

No, that's not a description of modern corporate leaders. Rather, it lists the natural traits of three- and four-year-olds. And leaders could learn a lot by paying attention to the way that little kids handle their lives and deal with others, contends Toronto-based management consultant Hugh MacPhie, author of the new book Don't Forget Your Cape: What Preschoolers Teach Us about Leadership and Life.

The title refers to a cape that Mr. MacPhie bought for his three-year-old son John, who was obsessed by action heroes. "Every time he put the cape on, I saw an instant transformation: His back straightened up, his eyes brightened and his language skills improved. He suddenly believed he could do anything he set his mind to," Mr. MacPhie says.

That belief that you have the power to make things happen is just one of the messages from pint-sized people that leaders should take to heart in this still-scary economy, Mr. McPhie says. In his consulting work as principal of organizational consultancy MacPhie & Co., he sees many leaders who have forgotten how to be as confident as kids.

"The demands of daily office life can erode confidence and make people afraid to question the status quo, or to take a risk on something that might fail," he says.

Take a cue from the kids, he advises. "Just like when you were four years old, every day should be an exciting new adventure. Have the confidence that there is nothing you can't accomplish if you put your mind to it."

Here are some key ways that grownups should act more like kids:

Ask why

What kids do

Preschoolers ask why - a lot - because they are genuinely trying to understand the world around them. Just as important, they are trying to understand the root causes rather than the surface answers.

What leaders do wrong

Somewhere along the way, asking questions to drill down to fundamental causes often gets lost and complacency sets in. For instance, the leaders of U.S. auto companies apparently were not asking basic questions about why foreign brands that changed models more frequently were gaining market share while they continued to sell the same products year after year, Mr. MacPhie says.

Cue from the kids

Leaders should constantly challenge assumptions and get to the reasons why things are changing. "The Japanese have a system called the five why's, which is a management tool that asks any number of times why to understand the genuine reason something is happening," Mr. MacPhie says. Organizations have thrived by continuing to ask why questions. For instance, Procter & Gamble Co. continually does market research asking customers why they buy even long running products and adapting their products to changing demands, he says.

Take more risks

What kids do

"Preschoolers take risks all the time. And they fail dozens of times a day. They are constantly trying something going outside their comfort zones, and therefore learning, growing, and gaining more skills."

What leaders don't do

"Particularly in a shaky economy, managers tend to shun risk-taking because they are concerned about what others in the organization might say if they failed. And they reject innovative ideas from their staff for fear of being to blame for a failure. This squeezes out innovation and creativity."

Cue from the kids

Actively encourage employees to take smart risks, and not fear failure. When individuals stop getting outside their comfort zones, they stop learning and growing. And in the process, the entire organization becomes less innovative and cutting-edge. If an idea or innovation doesn't work out, learn from it.

Share what you know

What kids do

When kids learn something, they tell their playmates about it incessantly, and the knowledge gets passed on.

What leaders do wrong

Too often in organizations, rather than sharing knowledge and insights for the good of the overall cause, information gets hoarded, Mr. MacPhie says. This comes about particularly in organizations that are highly political and where teams compete against each other. "People think keeping ideas to themselves will help them gain a promotion or advantage but, in reality, it slows down the spread of ideas that can help everyone succeed."

Cue from the kids

Call people out on knowledge hoarding, making it clear to those at all levels that that they will not be seen favourably if they guard information, but will be rewarded and praised for actively sharing information. "That ensures that the best ideas can be found from across the organizations and also that there are no unknown surprises."

Celebrate achievement

What kids do

"Preschoolers celebrate all the time. They celebrate birthdays. They celebrate snack time. They celebrate going outside. Because of this, they're always enthusiastic and looking forward to their next accomplishment."

What leaders do wrong

"There isn't much celebrating going on in most organizations today and, because of that, the mood in many offices is more uncertain and stressful than it needs to be."

Cue from the kids

Acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest win. "Thank people for doing a great job, and encourage others within their teams to do the same. This isn't praise for the sake of praise; celebrating emphasizes that good things are happening and the team is scoring wins. This builds the loyalty of good employees, making them less likely to leave, and can become a source of competitive advantage."

Play games

What kids do

Preschoolers love to compete for rewards or attention. They don't like to be told what to do, but join in enthusiastically if you can turn even something that is a chore into a game they like to play, Mr. MacPhie says.

What leaders do wrong

Leaders misguidedly believe that if people aren't at their desks slaving away, they aren't being productive, and that fun is something you save until after work hours.

Cue from the kids

Make work more fun. Do everything you can to create friendly competitions, with incentives to join in. Even if the prizes are gold stars next to their name on the company web site, competition will inspire employees to find ways to do things better. It's also important for leaders to find out what people are passionate about and cut staff some slack to work in ways that motivate them.

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