Four leadership lessons from growing up in child poverty

Paul Aladenika
4 min readApr 27, 2024
Image courtesy of Microsoft Copilot

This is the first in a three-part series where I share leadership lessons from my childhood. In the second blog I focus on ‘four leadership lessons from witnessing domestic violence as a six-year-old’ and in the final offering, I share ‘four leadership lessons from a childhood playground bully’.

Today, I enjoy a comfortable middle-class life. But like so many, that is not where I started. My life journey began in abject poverty. As a child growing up, I had to come to terms with my poverty long before I ever came to terms with my blackness.

At one point, we were a family of seven living in one room. I shared a double bed on one side of the room, with my two older brothers, whilst my sister slept in my parents’ bed on the other side. My youngest brother, just a few months old at the time, slept in a cot beside my parents.

The truth is that poverty has shaped my life. Not just socially, but also professionally. To this very day, I hold leadership values that mainline all the way back to the time when everything was a struggle.

Let’s be clear, this blog is in no way an attempt to romanticise poverty. Rather it reflects on learning that was acquired during one of the most difficult times of my life. If you know what to look for, leadership inspiration can be found anywhere, everywhere and at any time.

Set out below are four lessons from growing up in child poverty.

1. Speak with the voice of authentic experience

It is always nice when someone reaches out to say: ‘I know how you feel’. But do they really? If you have not walked in my shoes, how can you possibly understand my experience in any real or material sense? Those who have lived through poverty will tell you that it is a unique and often character shaping journey. Likewise, in leadership, you cannot truly understand the challenges of those you lead until you have experienced those challenges yourself [with them and preferably before them]. If you want to lead with empathy, then live with authenticity.

2. Create space for inclusion and connection

In my last year of primary education, a week-long trip was organised for all final year pupils. Those like me, who were unable to afford the trip, were left behind. Our individual pain was compounded by the collective shame of being the ‘poor kids’. Had we been wearing sandwich boards with ‘poverty sucks’ written on them, it would not have been more embarrassing. There is a salutary leadership lesson here about how hurtful exclusion can be — even when unintended. By contrast, when leaders are inclusive they create a sense of belonging for the marginalised and a place where everyone can recognise themselves.

3. Be for the future, not about the past

As any child will tell you, one of the worst aspects of abject poverty is not having enough food to eat. My parents, who are both proud people, worked hard just to put food on the table. Even so, perhaps due to my voracious childhood appetite, it never seemed to be enough. I was constantly hungry. One of the ever present risks of poverty is the pendulum effect, where traumatised children become traumatised adults. Thankfully, that is not how it has worked out for me. Nonetheless, there is an important leadership lesson here which is: never lower your expectations for the future, because of your negative experience of the past.

4. Embrace the notoriety

Embracing the notoriety of poverty simply means accepting what happened and not being ashamed of it. Whilst poverty has been hugely influential in shaping and maturing me, it retains no residual power over me. Whether that be economically, socially, psychologically or physiologically. Yesterday’s shame is very much today’s testimony. In the same way, one of the most important aspects of leadership, is the ability to make peace with the past. After all, resilience, which is one of the most valuable character traits that any leader can have, will only be tested and tempered in the face of extreme adversity.

So, how do we conclude this? Whilst at the time, I could see nothing redeeming about the poverty of my childhood, as an adult, I am able to contextualise that experience. The power of context is that, like a varifocal lens, you can see both distance and detail. There are things that I have learned from being poor, that I simply could not have learnt unless I had been poor. So too in leadership. By themselves, tough times are not the determinant of any leader’s competence or capability. It is what a leader becomes in tough times that will ultimately define them.

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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 .