Parenting is hard. And hard things teach lessons. Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read. But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me. Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:
- I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
- My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
- During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
- No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)
Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:
1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.
This is not a new concept. Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1. But what does this really mean? To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week. But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults. It also means being tough on behaviors. It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep. From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on. Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite. A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection. Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time. In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person. No thank you.
2. Clarity is king.
Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room? In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?” The story ends the same way every time. The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off. Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room. Clearly there was a miscommunication. In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well. If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get. At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.” The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission. At my house, it would look like this:
Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now. The bus comes in 10 minutes. If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school. That will cost you $5 for her services. Do you want to pay mom $5?”
Aaron: “No sir.”
Me: “Good. Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”
And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said. In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients. After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job. It’s all about clarity.
3. It is not a democracy.
In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.” My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks. “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply. And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family. In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish. Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her. In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household. Our children are not allowed to edit us. Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit. Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit. Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do. I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy. The goal is not happiness. The goal is growth.
4. Failure is a great teacher.
I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team. One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest. It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for. I only have one thing I wish he would change. I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.” In my life, failure has been a great teacher. It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance. And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.
As a mentor of mine once said to me:
“All day long we work with adults. But don’t be mistaken. They aren’t really adults. They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”
If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.
Then again, what do I know.