4 leadership principles that children understand better than adults

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On 22nd October, 2018, I was invited to speak at my old school – Trinity Grammar School in Sydney, on the topic of leadership. Most talks of this nature portray adults as learned superiors. But given the lack of inspiring adult leaders, it got me thinking –maybe children intuitively know what leadership is?

Here’s a transcript of my speech.

Thank you. I want to start by saying what an honour it is to be invited back to speak at this event. Thank you so much to Headmaster Bowden for having me back. For the school officers who are being inducted today, congratulations, and I hope you are able to do a better job than I could in your position.

Relatively close to 10 years ago – by which I mean – 19 years ago, I was in your shoes.

In 1999, after being inducted as one of the school’s prefects, I was doing my duty at a First XV game, standing up in front of the school, leading the school chants. It was lots of fun and I remember feeling pretty good about myself.

After the game, I noticed a fair amount of rubbish in one area of the stands. I saw a younger boy there, so I asked him to go pick them up. He looked back at me, shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t drop it. “Why should I?” he asked.

I naively said the first thing that came to mind, which was “because I’m a prefect and I told you so.”

I won’t repeat exactly what he said in response, because it was particularly polite. But despite this, he was actually correct and here I was, learning about leadership.

I expected to lead someone because I had a badge on my chest, not because I’d shown him that I was worthy of leadership. Now, I’m not saying that the next time someone in a position of authority tells you to do something, you should tell them to “go away”. What I am saying is that it makes it so much easier to lead people when you actually show them you’re worthy of the privilege of leadership.

Today, we’re here to celebrate the induction of new leaders. This is a huge privilege and responsibility. I’ve been invited to speak to you about leadership. And that is, I assume, because I’ve had experience of being a leader myself, in a number of different contexts.

So, the logical thing to do would be to tell you about all the things I’ve learnt since leaving Trinity, the experiences that I’ve had which have shaped my view of leadership, and how many wonderful lessons you have to look forward to.

That could be a really interesting talk. But it’s not the talk that I’m going to give today.

Because when most people talk about leadership to young people, they put adult leaders up on a kind of pedestal. As if young people need to learn from older people what leadership is all about.

But if that were the case, why is it that we struggle to find adult leaders worth following? Look around the political landscape, the entertainment industry, the private sector. How many leaders would you say are currently inspiring you to become a leader, let alone follow them?

The reality is that you don’t need to learn about leadership once you leave school. You, as a young person, you already have all the leadership qualities you need. You just need to make sure you retain them.

Because the world as it is, regardless of whether it’s in politics, private sector, or even non-profit – where most of my background is – this world will try and strip you of these inherently good leadership qualities.

Your job is not addition, it’s retention – retain what you already know.

So in no particular order, here are 4 inherent leadership qualities that young people have, which many adults could afford to attain.

1)   Stay curious

I want you to think, intuitively, about whether you think leadership is about telling people what to do, or about asking questions. Our concept of leaders has always been of a leader giving out orders – whether it’s sitting on top of a horse, leading an army out to battle, or an Wallabies coach, struggling to keep his job, screaming at his players.

But that suggests that a leader has all the answers. And the reality is that a leader is the one who has to be the most comfortable with not knowing the answers.

A child inherently knows this – particularly younger children. Let me give an example of a conversation with my nephew.

Hey Sam, you can’t go outside to play today.


Because you’ll get wet.


Because it’s raining.


Because too much water has condensed around a particle or the air temperature above us has dropped


Because of the hydrologic cycle that ensures that water changes state and position over time


Because nutrients, pathogens and sediment must be moved around for us to function.

You get the idea.

As silly as repetitively asking simple questions like why seems, this is the basis of what Toyota implemented in the 1950s to standardise their production and troubleshoot issues. The process is very simple. You ask why five times to get to the root cause of the problem. And as a leader, your job is to find the truth, by asking why.

So the next time your parents tell you that you can’t go to that party on Saturday night, simply tell them you’re exercising your leadership potential when continually asking them why. For the next 24 hours…


2)   Stay humble

A child, perhaps because they haven’t necessarily done and achieved a lot in the world, is almost always humble. That’s the nature of childhood.

You might have people around you who are telling you how gifted you are, how intelligent you are, how you can achieve anything you want to. That’s nice to hear, but I don’t think it really helps you in the long term.


Because if you already had all of these gifts, what would be the point of hard work, dedication and persistence? What would be the point of even asking questions?

In 2012 I founded a charity in Cambodia, which is currently addressing one of the biggest gaps in health care in the country. It has been a wild ride, full of ups and downs, with a fair amount of accolades along the way. Earlier this year, I was named amongst 15 people as one of the top emerging leaders in Australia and the ASEAN region.

But that is not the proudest moment in my career. One of the proudest moments has been being challenged in a meeting by a young Cambodian female employee, because she didn’t agree with what I had said. It’s worth pausing for a moment to note, culturally how unusual this is. She openly challenged her foreign, male boss, who happened to be older than her, and the founder.

This told me that we had created an environment where it wasn’t one person doing the thinking, it was everyone thinking for themselves. As the leader, I just had to be smart enough to listen.


3)   Don’t forget your privilege

When you come out into this world, you see things with eyes for the first time. You can probably remember seeing a young baby or a child exploring something simple, such as a book or a spoon for the first time. And then, as we get older, we become more accustomed to these mundane things in our lives.

A few months ago, I was cycling along the road when I saw a Chinese man taking photos of trees, the sun and the sky and birds chirping. In the past, I might have looked at that man and thought – wow – what a weirdo. As if you’d take photos of something so run of the mill.

But these days my perspective has changed. I’ve lived in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia for 8 years, and I’ve realised that the simple things we take for granted are not the norm for the majority of people in the world.

How many times have you thought consciously about what it means to be able to turn on a tap and drink a glass of water?

Outside of Oceania and North America, this is not the norm at all. There are no countries in Africa, nor South America, and only 6 countries in Asia, where you can get away with doing this. More than half the world isn’t as lucky as us when it comes to tap water.

So wouldn’t it be better if we could all be like that Chinese man that I saw? If every time we did something, we were looking at it as if we were a newborn? Every time you turned on a tap to drink water, wouldn’t it be better to remember that less than half the world has that privilege?


4)   Do what you think is right, not what others say is right

With the important exception of climate change, there is no doubt that the world, on balance, is a far better place than it was even when I was at school. And here’s one statistic that demonstrates that. 137,000 people escaped extreme poverty every day between 1990 and 2015. Per day. That means that since the time I started talking, about 900 people have escaped extreme poverty – the lowest rung on the wealth scale.

And yet, there are many problems in the world that are yet to be solved. They need passionate, hard-working, empathetic people. But we need leaders who are willing to think differently.

And from working with uni students and other young people, I’m confident that we’re better placed than ever to do this.

A study of over 30,000 people in 2014 indicated that 75 percent of millennials and gen Z (65 percent across all age ranges) will pay more for products and services that ‘give back’ to society.

This is one of many studies that suggest that this is the most purpose lead generation, most connected to morals than ever. So, going by the evidence, if we want moral leadership, we should be more willing to turn to a millennial or a Gen Z than a baby boomer.


So to sum up, what is leadership? Leadership is about making choices that are aligned to your values. And, at this age, before you are tempted by fleeting things such as fame, corruption, power, and a potential slot on the Bachelorette, you implicitly know what is right, and what good values are. So you just need to make sure you’re acting on them.

But if you take one thought with you today, I want it to be this. There is a difference between compliant leadership and non-compliant leadership.

Compliant leadership is what we need when times are stable and things are constant, or it’s what leaders create when they want stability. Think about authoritarian regime for example.

Non-compliant leadership is what we need in 2018 and beyond. We don’t have a clue what the world will look like tomorrow, let alone, let alone tomorrow. We need leaders who are asking the simple question: why, and challenging the status quo.

And I’m hoping the school officers of today, and all of you, as well, can be this kind of leaders. Take it from a guy who used to be here close to 10 years ago – we need you to be.



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