Neoteny – The Secret to Being a Lifelong Leader
This blog is a companion blog on leadership skills: The Power of Personal Leadership – It Starts with You and Is There an Influence of Era on Leadership Values?
One of the most exciting observations to emerge from the research on “Geeks and Geezers” conducted by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas is the concept of “neoteny” and the role it plays with the geezers (leaders in their seventies and older). It is the discovery that staying youthful throughout life is critical for any aging person who wishes to continue to be a leader. All “geezers” who continue to play a leading role in society share one quality in common: “Neoteny”. Neoteny, is a term borrowed from zoology that refers to “the retention of youthful features well into adulthood”.
“Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy. Unlike those defeated by time and age, our geezers have remained much like our geeks – open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous, eager to see what the new day brings. Time and loss steal the zest from the unlucky and leave them looking longingly at the past. Neoteny is a metaphor for the quality – and the gift – that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all marvelous undiscovered things to come.” ― Warren G. Bennis, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders
Walt Disney, of all people, described his own neoteny in a way that evokes vitality: “People who have worked with me say I am ‘innocence in action,’” he wrote. “They say I have the innocence and unselfconsciousness of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with uncontaminated wonder.” (Dave Smith and Walt Disney, The Quotable Walt Disney (New York: Hyperion, 2001).
The ability to look at the world with "uncontaminated wonder" is, ultimately, what separates the prosperous from the ordinary, the happily engaged of any age from those who are continually frustrated and dissatisfied. Therein lies the lesson for geeks, geezers, and the myriad of people who fall in between.
In short, neoteny is the preservation of a youthful curiosity, idealism, experimentation, wonder and thirst for knowledge.
Here are two suggestions to help you develop your neoteny:
- Play. Stuart Brown & Christopher Vaughan are the authors of an excellent book on the importance of play and its role as a catalyst for creativity and development. Play can take many forms: going out for a walk, hanging out with children, taking acting classes, composing artwork,... The list is endless, but above all, play must be felt as a game and not as a chore.
- Develop your curiosity: Read. Ask questions about why? Observe the things you see all the time and look at them as if you were seeing them for the first time. What do you see now that you've never seen before? How can we learn to become more perceptive?