Want great insight into leadership? Ask a Brownie!

Diane Johnson of The Leadership People, in addition to her career as a leadership consultant and coach, is also a volunteer leader, intriguingly known as Pygmy Owl, in a Brownie Girl Guide group. She is constantly amazed at the perceptiveness of her young charges, so much so that she has collected their observations into a new series of articles, of which this is the first instalment.

Lessons in leadership from Brownie Guides

Photograph credit: Martin Thomas / Via Flickr: martin_thomas

Out of the mouths of babes

Children have a wonderful capacity to observe the world and describe frankly what they see. I was reminded of this recently in a discussion I was facilitating with a group of 9 and 10 year-old Brownies to help them with one of their badges.

The topic of leadership came up and we were chatting about the characteristics of good leaders. The girls had to create stories about situations where leadership was important and describe the characteristics that made a good leader.

For those of you who have not been involved in Brownies, I should explain that a Brownie unit is divided into small groups called Sixes. Each Six is led by a Sixer, who encourages the members to play and work together, helping them to settle in and become part of the team. She is the leader of the group and is expected to be a great role model for the other girls.

All of the girls in my discussion group were Sixers and I got them thinking about what being a good leader of their Six meant.

What a leader should not be

There were some laugh-out-loud comments about leaders not being like a teacher, a headmistress, a Mum or a Dad because they shout too much (with exquisite impressions, I might add). There were also a few sniggers about bossy older brothers and sisters.

As the girls continued to comment that leaders should not be unfair, not have favourites, not make all the decisions, it occurred to me that they were couching all their thoughts in the negative. They were listing all the things that leaders were NOT to be.

On reflection, I should have expected this. The work of David Rock on reward and threat responses from the brain highlights that we have 5 times as many receptors in our brains to spot a threat than a reward, so it follows that we are more likely to notice negative ‘threat’ behaviours from leaders than positive ‘reward’ behaviours.

I quickly realised that I had not couched my question clearly enough. I had asked a question that invited either negative or positive attributes, so the emphasis would inevitably trend towards the former.

Asking the right question

To get the girls to switch on their ‘reward’ receptors, I had to be much more specific in my request. So I asked, “Think about the people whom you have enjoyed as a leader in your life. What were they saying and doing that you liked?”

Leaders need to have courage

The girls were pensive at first, having to dig a bit deeper to find and express leadership traits in the positive. You could have knocked my down with a feather when the first girl spoke up. She said that she felt being a great leader meant having courage.

WOW! This was a 9-year-old girl! Not many of the adults on my leadership days will come out with this one without some coaxing. I asked why courage was important and she replied simply, “Because it takes courage to say no to something, especially when you think saying no will upset someone.”

I can’t tell you how my heart sung! Being a leader does require courage, even if that courage is as simple as saying no to something or someone.

…and that’s not all

Then many other wonderful observations just flowed on:

  • It’s all about trying, not just about winning
  • You have to do what the team do as well
  • You have to really care about everyone in the team
  • You have to encourage everyone, even when they make mistakes

Focus on the positive

We can often jump to negative indicators of behaviour before the positive. Our brains are wired that way. However, we should also make every effort to reverse this and describe what we DO WANT to see rather than what we DON’T. My discussion with the Brownies not only revealed their intrinsic awareness of some key elements of leadership but also reminded me of the importance of digging deep to uncover positive ideas.

Sometimes we respond in the negative because we are invited to do so. It’s important, therefore, to reflect on the questions we ask ourselves, and others, and construct them so that they play to our reward sensors rather than our threat sensors. The negatives usually come easy so it’s worth probing for the positives in order to get the complete picture.

We are all told that “you never stop learning”. I saw my role in Brownies as being a teacher, to share my experience and knowledge with the girls in order to help with their development. However, I’m learning that it’s actually a two-way street and that I can learn from them as well, which, in itself, is a very uplifting sensation.

About Diane Johnson

Diane Johnson is a qualified coach with a Post-Graduate Certificate in Personal and Business Coaching. Her passion is to help clients bring about positive change, whether it be with an individual, a team or an organisational culture. Diane Johnson has extensive, senior HR experience, especially in the retail sector with Tesco. She has also worked in the public sector and has had international accountability across fourteen countries as Group People Director with ghd. Diane has experience of a wide range of diagnostic and development tools and is TLP’s resident expert on Emergenetics, a leading-edge profiling tool that is highly effective in building self-awareness and pinpointing areas of opportunity with the most potential. The tool can be used either individually or at the team level.

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