By tapping into their inner child, leaders can blend the bold thinking and action of childhood while maintaining responsibility to the bottom line — an important balance in digital leadership.

When I turned five, I got a new bike. I didn’t know how to ride it, but I took it to a nearby hill anyway, a willing warrior, ready to ride. Was I prepared? Would I be brave enough to overcome the anxiety of facing the unknown? The truth is those questions never occurred to me at the time. Reflecting on this experience decades later, I realized I wasn’t just a willing warrior — I was an ecstatically enthusiastic one. Today, I can’t help but wonder why it seemed so much easier to take on significant new challenges as a five-year-old than it is for me now. As a child, did I have gifts that I somehow lost over the years? Was I foolish then and more responsible now? Upon further reflection, I have come to realize that I’ve been fighting a decades-long battle to not lose many of those gifts that made it relatively easy to learn new things when I was young.

So, let me pose a few questions: What were some of those gifts? Why have I been in danger of losing them? What does this have to do with learning to lead in the digital economy?

Here’s what I remember about myself as a child:

  1. I was bold. I took risks. I knew not getting it perfectly right the first time or two would have short-term consequences, but I didn’t consider that “failing” — it was just a matter of acquiring a skinned knee and a bruise or two. I couldn’t have cared less because I was learning something new and having fun doing it.
  2. I learned fast. I found creative ways of falling so as to minimize those skinned knees and bruises.
  3. I experimented, used my innate powers of critical thinking, and was resourceful. There were no fancy bicycle helmets when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, but one of my other prized possessions, my replica New York Giants football helmet, served multiple purposes that day.
  4. I was flexible and resilient. Maybe it was just being five, but no matter how many times I fell, I got right back up and barreled down that hill again. And suddenly, my confidence grew as my mechanical skills converged in positive ways with my attitude of being unafraid.
  5. Finally, and certainly not least important, I was trusting, because my dad was pointing me down that hill and carrying the bike back up “Mount Everest” so as not to exhaust me needlessly. He was there, laughing with me, not at me, giving out tips now and then but letting me go my own way, making the experience enjoyable and memorable.

The Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy: Getting Back to Where We Started

“Noncreative behavior is learned,” said renowned creativity and innovation researcher George Land, Ph.D. In the early 1960s, NASA engaged Dr. Land to develop and conduct assessment tests on creativity, resourcefulness, and innovation in the initial days of the space program. After all, if you are pursuing a moon shot, you better have a team with the most creative minds on the planet while preparing to execute a remarkably bold vision, one without an operating manual to serve as your guide. Dr. Land’s assessment instrument turned out to be very successful and served a critical role in NASA’s selection process for both astronauts and the troubleshooting team on the ground.

The instrument was so effective that Dr. Land believed it held promise for other avenues. He turned his research team’s attention to studying creativity and innovation in children to try to understand if creativity could be taught, and if so, how. His assessment instrument was modified for this new audience, and the findings were stunning. The team first assessed the levels of creativity, curiosity, and innovation in five-year-old children. The result: 98% of those studied scored at the “genius level” against these criteria. The test results were questioned by some creativity researchers because of the extraordinarily high scores, so Dr. Land decided to make the study a longitudinal one, studying those five-year-olds in five-year increments until they reached young adulthood. Using the same instrument on the same study group, the scores moved from 98% at five years old to 30% at 10 years old to 12% at 15 years old to 2% as adults.

So, what started out as a project to determine whether creativity and innovation could be taught turned out to have a completely different outcome. It took Dr. Land 20 years to realize that he had challenged his team to solve the wrong problem! The real problem, he surmised, was less about learning how to be more creative or innovative than it was about learning how to not lose the innate creativity and curiosity that resides within us as children.

Virtually all the executives I’ve interviewed for MIT SMR’s exciting new Big Ideas Initiative, Leading Into the Future, share Dr. Land’s interests in encouraging creativity, curiosity, and innovation. The importance of these early childhood gifts in leadership is one of the central lessons emerging from our early interviews.

Setting the Conditions for Success: RBC’s New Leadership Mantra

“We have to be able to break down the traditional business models that we’ve been operating — better understand how the world around us and our customers are changing — and then rebuild business models and value chains with new paradigms.” This statement was made to me by Dave McKay, President and CEO of RBC, one of the world’s largest financial services companies. Similar to Dr. Land’s reflections, McKay came to believe that over the years, leaders at RBC were too conservative in their goal setting and not acting boldly enough.

“We’re a leading franchise in Canada and now, a leading bank globally. We felt that weight of expectations to be steady. Banking used to have many barriers to entry. It required billions to enter the business. But now, with the onset of digitalization, smaller, newer, more agile players can enter the business and chip away at your value chain and get between you and your customers. You don’t want anybody getting between you and your customers. So, we needed to reimagine ourselves. In the past, we laid out conservative plans and set conservative goals to insure that we wouldn’t fail. Not anymore. Today, our leadership model casts a net for those who act boldly, are innovative and flexible, take risks and have a hunger for learning and speed.”

McKay was clear that RBC was not pursuing innovative and bold thinking just for the sake of behaving that way. To the contrary, he was suggesting that in order to maintain its responsibility to its shareholders, RBC needed to think and behave more creatively because its competitors were offering new and innovative services that made RBC’s services potentially less compelling. As such, McKay was stating that the new accountability for RBC was to be bold, but with an eye that would eventually result in differentiated value for its customers and shareholders.

McKay talked a lot about unlocking the potential that already existed in his organization but had been drummed out of them by working under a mindset that was characterized by a fear of failure. “I firmly believe that today a great leader’s first job is to unlock the potential of people in the organization, and the second job is to walk the talk and act that way day-in and day-out. They must create the conditions for success and then live it.” As a specific example of unlocking people’s potential, McKay told me about RBC’s Amplify Program, a summer internship program in which RBC leaders assign some challenging problems not to its senior leaders or even its high potential talents, but to summer university students. “These students come to Amplify with a clean slate. They bring creative minds with unfiltered thinking to these challenges- some of them musicians, some art students, and some with a love of science. The freshness with which they look at these problems has been eye opening for us all. Their ideas have generated more than ten patents for us this summer and they are inspiring the organization.”

As leaders in today’s world, we need to recall the gifts of our inner child. We must set the conditions for success by creating an organizational mindset that supports experimentation, innovation, critical thinking, resilience, and speed. At the same time, we need to recognize that these activities and capabilities are not ends in themselves. Results matter. Acting boldly while keeping a focus on results is one of the key leadership challenges in a digital era.