Bob Diamond is full of energy and enthusiasm. He likes taking risks. He is determined: he knows what he wants and goes for it. He is fearless, cheerfully taking on a job he has little experience of. He speaks (relatively) simply. He has been known to throw tantrums. He is greedy and always wants more.

I’ve never met him, but on the strength of what I’ve been reading about him I’m absolutely confident that he’s going to make an excellent new chief at Barclays. This is because he accords perfectly with a brand new theory of leadership that is surprising, radical, yet utterly compelling. This theory says that the best CEOs are just like toddlers.

Until last week, I had always thought that it was the worst CEOs that had so much in common with two-year-olds. Both groups tend to swagger round with a wide-legged gait. Both say “mine” a lot and are exceedingly bad at sharing. Both have short attention spans. Both lack common sense and have issues with listening. CEOs and toddlers are also hazy about the existence of other human beings, tending to view them as objects. They both inspire fear in the hearts of their handlers. And anyone who has observed how toddlers behave on aircraft will realise why it is a good idea for CEOs to travel in private jets.

But then I was sent a message putting me right. Toddlers, it argued, are not negative role models but have the perfect range of skills to run public companies.

This discovery was made by Nicholas Brann, a former banker whose third child was just about to become a toddler. He had been dreading this stage, so to get himself into a better frame of mind he sat down and made a list of the good things about young children. When he’d finished, he noticed something strange. Each of the positive traits that he remembered from his toddlers were the same traits in the best CEOs he had worked for over the years. His list, which includes many of the characteristics that Mr Diamond seems to have in spades, goes like this:

● Toddlers are full of energy and enthusiasm. You can’t beat a toddler who is really into something and going for it 100 per cent.

● Toddlers are natural risk-takers. They throw themselves into climbing down the banisters in the boldest, bravest fashion.

● Toddlers are persistent. When told not to smear jam on a DVD, they will wait a couple of minutes and then do it again.

● Toddlers are inquisitive. They will not be fobbed off with a stock reply but go on asking “why? why? why?”

● Toddlers are creative. Their felt-tip drawings on walls and sofas betray the liveliest imagination.

● Toddlers have great interpersonal skills. They are good at thawing the hardest heart with hugs and sloppy kisses.

It is a splendid start but I feel there are more traits that the finest CEOs share with two-year-olds. They are assertive and jolly good at saying no. They are not hamstrung by inhibitions. They will march straight up to someone and say: “Who are you?” They are good at making decisions. They don’t need Malcolm Gladwell to tell them to trust their instincts.

I realise that this is just scratching the surface – there is material here for many leadership books. In fact, it is a mystery that none have yet been written when you think of how many books there are on the leadership lessons from tribal warfare, orchestras, boxing, mountaineering, even on beekeeping.

I suspect the reason management thinkers have avoided the parallels with toddlers is it upsets their faith in the idea that leadership is an endless “journey” of improvement or “lifelong learning”. The toddler theory says the reverse. Good leaders have the right skills already, the trick is to avoid dulling their edges with too many civilised niceties picked up along the way.

There is one final way in which the toddler is a great role model for the CEO: language. Toddlers say what they mean and say it simply. They never feel tempted to dwell on paradigm shifts or value stacks or synergies.

In this area, too, Mr Diamond shows promise. When the British government said he couldn’t buy Lehman’s assets, he expressed himself with great clarity in an e-mail: “Couldn’t have gone more poorly, very frustrating. Little England.”

In fact, there is only one thing that is wrong with Mr Diamond. It’s not, as was widely said last week, that he is the unacceptable face of banking. It’s that, at 59, he is about 56 years past his peak.

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article