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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Do What You Want

Please, Mommy, don't read this blog
Please, Mommy, don’t read this blog

Twelve habits of happy, healthy people who don’t give a shit about your inner peace was a life changer for me. If I don’t have to like jazz music, that means I can also give up trying to like post-war big-band jazz. I have no idea why I ever thought that was a good idea for me…

 

Life Purpose? Really?

This is another one of those personal motivational trends that’s been overdone: discover your passion and solve all your problems! Makes me want to quip that some people’s purpose seems to be to serve as a warning to everybody else.

But –

I do believe setting intent, a goal, or direction for whatever we engage in – have a rich and fulfilling life, whatever that means for you – includes having at least some idea of what you want to do with it.

So –

Here’s a great article with some thought-provoking questions to help you maybe figure out your purpose. So, go get ’em tiger!

It’s No Use

Often the full and complete answer is more satisfying and insightful than the myth:

“The first question you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “what is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer at once must be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possible medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward , then you wont see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money  to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for. ”

Mallory
Mallory up the side of some useless mountain

 

Why Are You Hiding Your Values?

I was in Rogers on Tuesday (they’re a local  cell phone service provider), on the 29th anniversary of my engagement to my bride, trying to get her a phone upgrade.  I thought it would be a simple process, and a nice gesture on our “asking” day.

Silly me. Three hours later we walked out with a new phone, bitter and disappointed at the service we received from Rogers. The only reason I didn’t switch was because the clerk couldn’t get through to her own customer service to cancel my contract, and I didn’t want to spent my entire anniversary waiting for this to get sorted out. But that’s not really what I want to talk about today.

While waiting I noticed the Roger’s one-page strategic plan lying on the counter. It seems I’ve inherited my grandmother’s faculty for reading upside-down. At least somewhat.

That skill had something to do with why she spent a few years living in Argentina after the war. There’s also something about her burning her then-dead German husband’s papers on the roof of the apartment in Switzerland under cover of doing laundry before fleeing. That’s also another story.

I asked the clerk if I could take a look at her company’s values, and she said no. She hid it furtively. As if she’d been caught doing something wrong.

This puzzles me. If a company is going to go through all the time and effort of discovering a set of expected behaviours for the company, then why can’t its customers see it? Are they embarrassed? Are they afraid that customers will laugh? In Roger’s case, given my treatment by them that night, that might realistic.

I began wondering how many other companies have values that they’re not willing to share with their customers, suppliers, and partners. Are they afraid to be held accountable to them? If you set out values and expected behaviour for everybody in your company, and you know that that’s not who your company really is, then I might understand your reticence.

I challenge you to publish your values. I dare you to make a public commitment. Commitment that is necessary for accountability and results. If you’re not willing to make that commitment, maybe you need to go back to your executive retreat and have another think.

If it turns out you don’t have any values, besides just making money, which I doubt, then don’t make something up. You’re not fooling anybody. Share who you are as a company, and be willing to be held to it. Otherwise the public will make up its own stories about why you behave the way you behave, or treat them the way you do.

Then make sure there’s a way for your clients, staff, suppliers to tell you when you are – and aren’t – living up to them. Listen. They’re already talking about you anyway. If you’re not hearing them it’s because you’re not listening.

If you’re not willing to fire employees behaviour that  consistently violate your core values, or you’re not willing to fix internal systems that consistently violate your customers humanity (such as making a phone upgrade a byzantine, three-hour gauntlet of bizarre rules and contractual obligations that require approval from an unreachable customer service representative in some overwhelmed call centre), then don’t waste your time.

There is a direct line between integrity and execution. If you don’t understand the this linkage between vision and engagement, values and execution, purpose and urgency, then stop wasting your time. Don’t waste it on “values” and “strategy” if you’re not going to follow through, or are doing it only because all the other “good” corporations are doing it.

That’s how I got started smoking – because the “cool” kids were doing it. It took me more than 29 years to quit and permanently damaged my health. But that’s another story.

My Own Personal Values

For the record, here are my own personal values:

  1. I will keep my word
  2. I will not lie, steal, cheat, hate, nor tolerate those who do.
  3. I will leave this world better than I found it.
  4. I will deal with reality, and face my fears. The only easy day was yesterday.
  5. Family first and last

Want to Motivate? Give Them a Purpose

Turns out higher rewards sabotage higher performance.

Turns out that autonomy, mastery, purpose gives us engaged employees, creativity, and stellar performance.