What leaders can learn from Parents
Being a father of three can be overwhelming and extremely intense, sometimes.
Fortunately, a lot of what I’ve learnt from 22 years’ experience of work in and with teams has provided me with some critical skills to deal with different family dynamics.
Nonetheless, the fact is that my experience as a father as made me a much better leader, by and large.
In a home where five people share the same space for several hours every day, feelings can flow at different wavelengths and family dynamics can go from excitement and love to disappointment and anger in a question of seconds!
Being able to cope with the expectations, moods and personalities of 5 people involves a certain amount of stability, improvisation and emotional intelligence. So, let me tell you what I’ve learnt:
Being a leader or a parent means being in the spotlight all the time. People tend to look up to you and expect you to be a role model. They will admire you, criticize you, agree or disagree, but everything you do will contribute to their definition of what is a leader.
Unconsciously, they will mimic some of your behaviors and build their own idea of what is acceptable, what is right and what is wrong, based on their observations. If you yell all the time, they’ll think it’s OK to yell. If you micromanage them, they will think that’s the correct way of managing, even if they don’t appreciate it. Ultimately, they will perpetuate some of your principles of leadership.
Remember: you’re not just leading; you’re setting an example.
Being a parent is a lifelong experience. You can’t give it up and you can’t pause or postpone your responsibilities as a parent. When you become one, it’s for the rest of your life. Pretty scary thought, right?
This is probably one of the most important leadership lessons you learn from being a parent. When you think you’ve gone over your limits, there is always something more you can do. It’s when you test your limits consistently that you understand how far they are from what you thought. You’re in for the long term and sometimes you only see the results of your actions years later.
One of the demanding things about leadership is that it is either honest and credible or it doesn’t work in the long term. Credibility is built over time and consistency is one of its main foundations. By being consistent, I mean having a clear set of rules and boundaries and actually living by them. Using them in all the decisions you make. When you do that, people will understand where the decisions come from, they will understand the “why”, without needing further explanations. Consistency is a safe harbor, meaning that people don’t have to overthink it and can use their time and brains for more useful things. It also helps to remove feelings and personalization from decisions.
Consistency may be even harder to maintain if there are two leaders (parents) as dissonance will undermine the basis of trust and pave the way to misunderstanding and frustration.
Human beings are not perfect by nature or design (depending on your personal beliefs) and consequently they have flaws and weaknesses. By not admitting them, leaders tend portray a wrong image of perfection, sometimes unachievable to people’s eyes, which generates frustration.
By bringing humanity to your role as a leader or parent, you forgive yourself for not being perfect, for failing sometimes, thus removing a lot of the unnecessary pressure from the role.
You win some, you lose some. In leadership as in parenting, you need to cherry-pick the right battles to “fight”, in order to “win” the “war”. The war being the long-term success of your team or your children. You may need to give them space to make mistakes, to develop their critical reasoning and to feel comfortable with “fighting” for what they believe in. Not doing this will foster their frustration, undermine their self-confidence and ability to grow as a person or a professional.
From your team’s perspective it may seem an unfair battle to fight with someone “stronger”.
Let’s face it. When you love someone, chances are you will sometimes be disappointed. It’s easy to create high expectations and it’s only human that you should be disappointed when people don’t live up to your expectations. If you haven’t been through this situation in your personal or professional life it may well be because you don’t have any feelings toward that person or just because that person is (unlikely…) perfect!
Organizations are not industrial plants and teams are not (perfect) machines without feelings. So, when you are disappointed with someone’s attitudes or performance, it’s OK.
Nevertheless, try to forgive and move forward as soon as possible.
Be there to support them and let them learn from their own mistakes. Don’t judge. Let them know it’s OK to make mistakes, they are part of the learning process. Even when you think they are wrong and will fail. You’re not helping if you’re always correcting them, always telling them the right way to do things because eventually they will stop thinking for themselves and will wait for you to tell them what to do.
The way you give feedback is crucial: too much praise can create a dependency on external motivations to act; too much criticism may undermine your people’s self-confidence and ability to move forward. The right balance is sometimes difficult to achieve.
At the end of the day, as a leader, you want people who are able to think and act confidently and independently.
Each individual embodies a unique set of skills, “biological baggage”, experiences, social and cultural contexts. There is no single recipe for success in leadership, but incorporating a purpose, a set of values and guiding principles in everything you do and say will activate your people’s limbic system and the brain will do the rest.
Even in a safe environment, people don’t always show their true nature or feelings. And even when they do, you need to learn how to interpret words and behaviors that may hide the real underlying issues. “Problems don’t age well”, hence being able to uncover the real issues will help you to act and address them quickly before they grow and restrict your ability to tackle them.
As a tip of an iceberg, some displayed emotions are only the visible part of other feelings or issues and it’s your job as a parent or leader to find the underlying causes.
A lot of research has been dedicated to this topic. According to data and analysis from Google People Operations, psychological safety is one of, if not the most important factor that differentiates successful teams from other teams. This is something that we, as parents, learn throughout our parenting journey when we observe the short and long-term effects of allowing our children to take risks and be vulnerable without feeling insecure or embarrassed.
Safety allows them to grow, to move forward, to explore new paths and get out of their comfort zone as they understand that you, as a leader or parent, also want them to be the best possible version of themselves!
Finally, in leadership, as in parenting, don’t be afraid to live with passion, to always give as much as you possible can!
About the author
João Guedes Vaz is a father of three and a leadership and business transformation specialist.
With over twenty years of experience as an executive in multicultural and multinational organizations, João has worked with some of the largest companies in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa in a variety of sectors. João heads Portugal’s leadership consulting services and partners across the firm, working with clients to develop high-performance teams. João is a certified Executive Coach.