Raising Other People’s Children

I think it was listening to Tim Ferriss (1) interview a retired soldier who put forth a fully formed definition of leadership that struck me as being both concise and insightful (2):

“Leadership is raising other people’s children.”

I’ve been trying to find a workable, usable definition of leadership (3) for a long time (because I’m weird). I thought, “Hang on, we aren’t parents at work. And the people working with and for us certainly aren’t children.” So I rolled it over in my mind for a while and tucked it away. Apparently it stuck.

Then last week I listened to a TEDTalk where former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford eschews grades and over-parenting in favour of high standards and empathy. She has had to deal with so many children leaving home for the first time who were unable to tie their own shoe laces, let alone function as adults in the world. Also, their over-bearing parents who can’t let go. She describes a chart for successful parenting that looks like this:

Successful Parents Low Empathy High Empathy
High Standards Authoritarianism Sweet Spot
Low Standards Neglect Spoilage

…and it struck me that you very well could lay this chart over a leadership context and get the some useful results:

Neglect looks like high customer and employee turnover, waste, and a poisonous culture. Spoilage results in “happy” but ineffective employees. Think Silicon Valley, where a pool table and crepe bar are supposed to take care of employee moral and increase productivity, but instead results in employees playing pool and gaining weight.

In authoritarianism, the load for all decision making lands on the leader. There is a lack of accountability, bottlenecks, an inability to innovate, be proactive, or even make “common-sense” decisions.

The most valuable quadrant – high standards / high empathy – is also the smallest sweet spot (4)

If you’re not convinced empathy is as important as standards, go and watch the Superchicken TedTalk, where a Harvard study describes how teams with high empathy scores consistently outperform teams with high IQ scores. Teams that are aware of the emotions of its members, give everyone an opportunity to contribute, and where it’s okay to ask for help don’t just do better by a little bit – they do better by orders of magnitude. (5)

So what? Julie Lythcott-Haims gives us a very concrete action: make your kids do family chores.

It makes them aware that they’re part of a team (family) that depend on each other, lets them practice initiative (looking around to see what needs to do next without being constantly told), and prepares them to be independent adults. The kind that can do their own laundry and change the tire on their own damn car. Self-confidence based on lived experience. (6)(7)

Here’s another perspective: think of the mental load a leader (parent, spouse) already has in their role as a leader. Most people get punished promoted for doing good work by getting more work.

If, on top of being competent at their own job/role/duties/chores, keeping their word, creating a vision for the future, and inspiring others, they also have to direct and coordinate action on a day-to-day or even hour-by-hour basis, then they’re not going to do the other stuff very well. (8)

What does this mean to adult leaders leading adults?

  • Hire people that know how to do their own chores. Maybe they didn’t graduate from the best schools with the best grades, but you won’t have to supervise them every moment of every day. You are going to have to dig a little in the interview, but as a hiring manager that’s your job. It’s a learn-able skill. Also, it’ll make doing your so-called “real work” easier to do.
  • Learn to delegate. Very often we don’t get a choice about who works for us. So start giving away the work you shouldn’t be doing. Especially the organizing and planning of, or even better, the stuff you don’t like doing or aren’t very good at. It’ll suck at first (kind of like helping your kids do their homework without actually doing it for them), but it’s worth it.
  • Care: You can’t fake sincerity. So you’re going to have to actually care about people, ask questions, and listen. And you’re going to have to do it before you need it. That means spending time getting to know them, building the relationship, learning what motivates them and what they care about.
  • Train. Train your people. It’s a great way to show you care. But what if you train them and maybe they leave for a better job? What if you don’t train them and they stay?

(1) Choudn’t find the reference, but if you know it shoot it my way? Thanks.

(2) Of course it was an Non-Commissioned Officer (Sergeant & the like), because the best ones have a way of digging gems out of mountains of bullshit.

(3) The closest I’d come until now was “The Leadership Challenge”, which is still an important, original work. I’ll distill it here for you here if you don’t have time to read all 500+ pages: a) keep your word, b) be competent, c) have an idea of where you want to go, and d) share that vision to inspire others.

(4) Professional militaries have recognized this for a while. The U.S. Army Manual of Leadership defines leadership as “providing purpose, direction, and motivation” where motivation depends on trust, relationships, and influence.

The purpose and direction here echo what The Leadership Challenge calls vision and inspiration. The manual goes on to say: “Accomplishing the current mission is not enough—the leader is responsible for developing individuals and improving the organization for the near and long-term.”

(5) Just for giggles I did an online version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, widely considered a test of empathy. I didn’t think I’d score in the top percentile, but I didn’t even get close. That hurt a little. Women in general do better than men on this test, by the way.

(6) Otherwise there wouldn’t be books with titles like “Things Your Parents Should Have Taught You”.

(7) Also stop doing their homework, you’re not doing them any favours. In fact you’re creating an adult that is useless without someone telling them what to do next every minute of the day. If you really care, and you have to, sit down with them and make the work through it out by themselves.

Yes, painful for you too, not just them, but it’s setting the example: you are willing to actually spend your precious time on this because it’s important. Not just because you said it’s important. It’s left for an exercise to the reader about how this translates directly into being a good leader of adults.

(8) If you want to be a better parent, partner, and husband: it’s not enough to “do your share” of the chores, start doing them without being asked. Better yet, take over some of the planning and organizing. That’s an even better example you could be setting for your kids. Yes, I’m especially talking the men here. Again, it’s left as an exercise to the reader about how this translates into being a good leader.

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