What leaders can learn from parents

Part one: why both jobs have a lot in common

Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

I became a manager 8 years before I was lucky enough to become a parent and, in both cases, I realised the need to fill in my upcoming skills shortage with some research. When I came to books on child development I was surprised to find that many of the things which make a good manager or parent are the same. I’ll start by saying that this is not about the people working for you being children — treating people like children keeps people as children. This is about some ways of thinking that cross over and the first part of some of the models for parenthood can make you a more effective leader.

First of all. If you treat people like children then you’re harming their development. With a parent this is difficult because your child is lacking fundamental skills like being able to feed themselves. In both cases your job is to explain why something is the way it is and equip the other person with the skills over time. This can be frustrating because in many cases it’s going to be easier to do something yourself. Understanding where you need to step in versus how you can turn something into a learning moment is paramount. This will change over time as people need different things from you. But start with the assumption you’re dealing with someone that has the ability to think for themselves and figure things out.

There are going to be times when people are not receptive to what you have to say. Trying to convince a meltdown toddler that they need to clean their teeth at the point they are throwing things around the bathroom is not likely to be effective. You need to choose a moment where they are able to take in what you’re saying. The same goes with adults. If someone is upset then it doesn’t matter if you are 100% correct — they are not listening. Invest the time in helping them calm down, give them space or come back later.

And not only that, when they’re at their most emotional or vulnerable is when they need you the most. Believe in them. A big thing with child development is unconditional love. This is hard as you look at the tactical mashed potato bomb that’s just wallpapered your kitchen. At this point your angry child needs you the most. They need to know that even at their worst — you love them and believe in them. The same is true at work — when someone has just made a mistake or something has gone wrong they need to know you’re on their side and have their back. They need you to understand the situation and give them the opportunity to learn from it.

Choice is important. If you take away people’s choices they will reject your choice (even if they agree with it). A friend of mine was telling me about a child who has two toothbrushes — one red and one blue. When it’s time to clean their teeth they get to choose which colour they use. Even a tiny piece of autonomy in how you’re doing something makes a big difference. Remember that people always have a choice even if you leave them with one option on the table. As a manager you can feel like tearing your hair out that people are rejecting completely rational things — chances are they’re not rejecting the action but the way you arrived at it. Reactance bias is a real thing.

You’re solving problems together. Everything is easier if you work as a team. You will need to adapt as much as they will. In fact as the parent or manager you have a disproportionate influence over the other person’s life. In the case of the child they don’t eat if you’re not actively taking care of them. They will adapt to work with you out of necessity. If you don’t meet them in the middle then you won’t have a healthy relationship. Choose your battles — you do not have to be right all the time.

You want to say “yes, let’s do that” rather than “do that” or (worse) “don’t do that”. The more you let people follow their passions and interests the more they develop. A former manager once told me his job was simple — he just needed to understand what people were excited about doing and then step back. Obviously there has to be a balance and the passions need to be headed in a positive (and hopefully safe) direction.

Whatever you do is going to be copied. You are a role model. You are also an imperfect human being. With great power comes great responsibility. This is an opportunity to have a long hard look at your own rougher edges because you’re no longer just solving them for yourself — you’re preventing other people picking them up as well.

You need to ask yourself. Who is the parent/leader I want to be? What relationship do I want with my child/people? If you’re not deliberate about this it will happen anyway. Just probably not in the way that you want.

Finally. The goal of any parent or manager should be that the people they look after go on to exceed their own achievements. I look forward with a mixture of terror and anticipation to the day my daughter realises how much dumber I am than her. I hope she’ll still want to associate with me. The same is true as with a manager. You have the opportunity to equip people with the skills to reach where you are sooner than you did. Inevitably they’ll go on and go further and you’ll learn in return. This is a gift. Treasure it.

I’m going to follow this post up with some models from parenting (and even counselling) literature that I’ve found very useful in running teams of people. Look out for part two coming to an internet near you soon.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.