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How early life experiences shape the leader you become

Families are our first enterprise; parents and siblings the management team. Early relationships influence leadership style

A leader’s personal history (such as family influences or early life challenges) and key trigger events (like dramatic life episodes) play a crucial role in shaping qualities such as drive, resilience and determination. (Unsplash)

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When it comes to leadership development studies, the influence of socio-cultural context is given a lot of importance. Much has been said, studied and written about how family, social environment, education and cultural background inject values and impact how leaders behave in their respective workplaces.

One area, however, that remains less talked about is the effect of collective early-life experiences on leader development. And with diversity and inclusion (D&I) being an important metric for business sustainability and growth, this area of focus assumes even greater relevance.

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Psychology studies show that childhood experiences impact the choices we make and the kind of people we become as adults. The way a leader responds to pressure, their tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to nurture close or distant relationships with clients and colleagues, the ability to empower or micromanage, the way of communicating (directly or indirectly), the technique of decision-making (participative or authoritative)—all of these are influenced by early family life. Families are, after all, our first “enterprise”, and our parents and siblings are our first “management team.”

Organizations today are coloured by a growing number of diverse leaders from different socio, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, each coming in with their own early life experiences that have deeply shaped their values and beliefs and, therefore, their personalities.

An appreciation of how these experiences speak to their leadership style goes a long way in shaping healthy, functional cultures at the organizational and the team level, required to attain business results and engagement.


Over the years, researchers have studied autobiographies and biographies to understand and explain the role of childhood memories in the development process of leaders, their values and behaviours. A leader’s personal history (such as family influences or early life challenges) and key trigger events (like dramatic life episodes) play a crucial role in shaping qualities such as drive, resilience and determination. A leader’s values and behaviours develop depending on how the individual internalizes or processes these formative experiences.

Did the leader grow up in a nuclear or a joint family? Was the family open or guarded in their inter- and intrapersonal communication styles? Was expressing of emotions encouraged or discouraged in conversations? Was conflict addressed by confronting the issue or avoiding it altogether? Were the parents nurturing or uninvolved? Did the death of a parent, the birth of a differently abled sibling, or a reversal of fortune make the family stronger, or did it cause rifts and recrimination?

The ideas, beliefs and behavioural patterns we absorb as a result of conditioning and upbringing in our early years impact the effectiveness of our leadership style in later years.

Transference can occur when a leader subconsciously redirects feelings from their childhood on to a person in the workplace. A boss, for instance, may recreate functional or dysfunctional early family experiences in their organization, depending on childhood experiences, thereby influencing team members (who have their own early family dynamics as a backdrop). So, if a leader reminds a team member of their angry father when dealing with conflict, the team member will cower and withdraw just as they did when they were young to avoid confrontation and feel safe. These are reactive tendencies; we are not consciously aware of them, yet their impact is real.


According to Sigmund Freud, all human beings develop emotional and unconscious processes during childhood, and these processes eventually help in the development of emotions, personalities and behaviours of a person. Most people aren’t even aware that these processes and dynamics are largely subconscious, even though they become powerful influences that hover on the fringes of our consciousness.

Deep coaching, however, can be incredibly helpful in raising awareness among people about their leadership styles and the way they interact with people and manage their organizations.

Knowing or making sense of a leadership style is important simply because it ultimately affects the organization. It is vital to understand the background of individual leaders to make sense of their relevant emergent behaviours in their leadership roles. Often just recognizing that teams are only acting out their family dynamics can lead to significant change and improved team performance through awareness. All of this helps in understanding whether a leader or a manager is able to influence the quality of outcome in one’s setting.

Knowing yourself, reflecting on your life experiences, drawing knowledge from them, and then applying the lessons learnt to our work can be really powerful.

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The author is a senior vice president, human resources, with Kotak Life.

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