What can we learn about leadership from our childhood experiences? How might our early life lessons shape our tendency to take risks and innovate as entrepreneurs and business leaders?

Growing up in Atlanta during the 1960’s was considerably different from today. My immediate neighborhood and the business district were miles apart, but it was my world to explore. Early Saturday morning, I would set out on my bike with a group of friends and not return home until late at night. Since this was decades before cell phones, our parents had no idea where we were, but somehow we survived. This was how we learned to push the boundaries and take risks. (Of course, some risks were unnecessary adolescent dares.) It occurs to me that, by and large, we don’t give our children the freedom to do that. As the father of two daughters, I must admit that I’m as guilty as the next guy in being overly protective of my children.

Recently I ran across an article from several years ago written by Greg Siering, of Indiana University about the importance of risk-taking and failure in the student learning process. The gist of the article was that risk-taking should be encouraged as a fundamental part of the learning experience. It occurred to me that our early childhood experiences significantly influence our tolerance for risk when we get older. So that raises a couple of questions: By protecting our children against risks, whether on the playground, in their neighborhoods or at home, are we creating generations of naturally risk-averse corporate leaders? And if we accept the natural relationship between risk-taking and entrepreneurism, are we setting the stage for an inclination against entrepreneurism in the future?

Richard Branson tells this story of when he was around five years old. On a return trip from shopping, his mother, Eve, stopped the car and told him to find the rest of the three-mile trip home alone. This experience, along with many other influences attributed to his “mum”, shaped who he is today, a highly successful, risk-taking entrepreneur.

So is there a parallel between risk-aversion in child rearing today and what we see in large companies that are unwilling to take risks for fear of jeopardizing the position they have built on past successes? There’s comfort in the status quo when things are going well. I wrote about this latter point in an earlier article, Risk and Innovation. Have the successes of recent generations also created an environment that discourages risk-taking for fear that we will jeopardize the trappings of our success?

Now I’m not advocating dumping our small children out of the car miles from home and having them fend for themselves. (Though, I will admit that my daughters have been threatened with this.) But what I am suggesting, or at least proposing for consideration, is that we look for ways to encourage risk-taking in our children. It could make all the difference in the world, for them and for our entrepreneurial society, when they grow up.