Four leadership lessons from a childhood playground bully

Paul Aladenika
4 min readMay 11, 2024
Image courtesy of Microsoft Copilot

This is the final blog in a three-part series of leadership lessons from my early life. The first blog covered ‘four leadership lessons from growing up in child poverty’ and the second addressed ‘four leadership lessons from witnessing domestic abuse as a six-year-old’. In this final offering I focus on ‘four leadership lessons from a childhood playground bully’.

My playground bullying journey did not start in the playground, it started at home, where violence was a common occurrence. Much as I hated being a victim of violence, I saw it as a normal part of my life. So much so, that I became desensitised to it. Knowing no different, it was this mindset of desensitisation that I took to school each morning.

My experience of being a playground bullying lasted until I was about 10 years old. As a weedy little kid, I was not into taking pupils lunch money or anything like that. Nor was I engaged in acts of physical violence towards others. For me, bullying was used more as a psychological tool, to get my own way, to intimidate and be spiteful. As strange as it may seem it was also a ‘cry for help’. I was insecure and I desperately wanted other kids to like me.

Perhaps you are wondering what lessons could possibly be learnt from playground bullying? Well, read on.

1. Words have consequences

There was a day when my childhood bullying reached a tipping point. I had made a veiled threat to a classmate and whilst I did not intend to carry it out, he did not know that and told his parents’. They then informed the school, which made the decision to detain me, each day for 10 minutes, after my classmate had left the premises. I felt so ashamed. Today, this experience reminds me of how leaders can be so indifferent to the impact of their behaviour on others. Thoughtless words, careless actions and condescending attitudes can become currency, even when they are not intended to be. Understanding and owning one’s behaviour is a critical building block for leadership.

2. Bullies come in different sizes

One day my classmates and I were playing football, and I had an altercation with a pupil who had just joined our school a few weeks earlier. He was taller than me, but I confronted him with my usual swagger hoping to intimidate him. Suddenly, I was being slapped around by this kid in front of my friends and with my pride in tatters, I burst into tears. When it came down to it, my street corner bravado meant nothing. I sobered up very quickly after that incident. For leaders who like to bully others, there is a simple lesson here: eventually someone will come along who is bigger and badder than you.

3. No ‘statute of limitations’ on accountability

In my adulthood, I embarked on a quest for reconciliation. When I was between the ages of 8 and 10, there were two pupils that I had picked on and I reached out to both. Even though decades had passed, since those events, they were still fresh in my mind, and I assumed in theirs too. If the truth be told, in the years since I bullied them I had also been a victim during secondary school, and understood their pain. The leadership lesson here, is the need to recognise and admit your fault. Bullying is wrong, I knew it was wrong, yet I did it anyway. In leadership, there is no ‘statute of limitations’ on accountability.

4. Breaking the cycle

By the time I entered secondary school, the playground bullying had stopped. Perhaps it was due to a combination of recognising my own mortality and becoming more self-aware. Looking back, I am ashamed of my conduct, but grateful that I was able to break a dangerous cycle of aberrant behaviour. But here’s the rub, in the same way as we outgrow items of clothing, as we get older; so too should the maturity of leadership and the capacity to reflect on our own behaviours, empower us to outgrow the malevolence of bullying. Yes, there are lessons that can be learnt from it, but ultimately there is nothing redeeming about it.

I cannot reiterate strongly enough that bullying is a detestable and malignant practice. Even worse than the physical harm that bullies do is the psychological torture to which its victims are subject. As a childhood perpetrator and victim, I understand this uniquely. Notwithstanding, as I have tried to highlight with this blog and the series more broadly, the most valuable learning opportunities can come from the worst of lived experiences. In the span of my life, I have found those lessons everywhere. I just needed to know where to look.

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Paul Aladenika

Believer, TEDx speaker, host of The 11th Thing Podcast, blogger, mentor, student of leadership, social economist & thinker. Creator of www.believernomics.com .