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What Parents Can Learn about Leadership

One of the toughest jobs in the world is being a parent. It’s a leadership role that calls for the sharp negotiating skills of a chief executive, the flexibility of a scheduling secretary, the nonstop labor of employees on the floor, and even the maintenance expertise of the custodial staff. A new book by Wharton emeritus management professor Stewart Friedman and Alyssa Westring, management professor at DePaul University, explains how parents can harness the power of leadership principles to thrive in the four major domains of their lives – career, family, community and self. Friedman spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about the book, which is titled Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the preface to your book, you and your co-author write that you want to “bring the science of leadership to the art of parenting.” In what ways can parenting be viewed as leadership?

Stewart Friedman: A lot of ways, surprisingly. We have found that it’s useful, for example, for parents to have a clear sense of what their core values are and to be able to articulate those and to describe the source of those values in their own personal histories. The critical episodes that have shaped your values and beliefs — what are those? And how did those lead you to stand for the things that you stand for, the things that are most important to you?

To have a vision of the future and to be able to describe that is the sine qua non of leadership. Articulating your values, being able to describe a better tomorrow, a vision that your people — that is, your family and all the people who matter to you — can get excited about and be inspired by. To develop trust with the people who matter most to you by understanding what they really need from you. And then to be able to adjust what you do and how you do it, so that what you do every day is really serving the people around you as you advance toward that vision of the world you’re trying to create. That’s what leaders do. That’s what parents do.

Knowledge@Wharton: You include the stories of several parents who have worked with you on these issues. What are some of the common challenges you hear?

Stewart Friedman: Alyssa and I have a program called Parents Who Lead. We work with all different kinds of parents in all different sorts of settings. What we hear is that people feel isolated, out of control, overwhelmed and reactive to the incessant demands of their daily lives. What we help them do is take a step back, which you have to do to grow as a leader, and look at, “What’s my purpose? What am I trying to accomplish in my life and as a parent, and in this parenting partnership,” which can take all different forms. It’s not just married couples.

Stepping back and taking a breath, looking at what really matters, who really matters, and what steps you can take that are within your control — all these enable you to move a little closer toward that vision of the world you’re trying to create. It helps people gain a greater sense of purpose, a sense of control and a little bit more harmony. And it positively impacts the different parts of your life when you take that view of yourself as a leader, not just at work but also in your family and in your community. Looking at your life as a whole and how parenting fits in that helps you to gain a greater sense of control and clarity of purpose.

Knowledge@Wharton: Part of the framework for this book comes from a previous book you wrote called Total Leadership. Can you explain the concept of the four-way view and why that’s important to solving the kinds of challenges you talked about?

Friedman: Back in 1991, when I founded the Wharton Work-Life Integration Project and the Wharton Leadership Program, one of the things we set out to discover was how do people who are good at this work-life integration game do it? What we found is that they follow three basic principles: understand what’s important to them in the different parts of their lives; understand who’s important to them; and continually experiment with how you get things done. So, [they try] to be real, to be whole and to be innovative.

“What we hear is that people feel isolated, out of control, overwhelmed and reactive to the incessant demands of their daily lives.”

One of the ways in which we began to research and teach people how to see those different parts of their lives in a way that made sense to them was to take what we called the four-way view. Look at your work, your home, your community, and your private self — your mind, body and spirit. How important are these different parts of your life to you? Take a hundred points and divide them up according to how important they are.

Now, in a typical week or month, where do you focus your attention? Where’s your mind, which is your most precious asset as a leader? And take another hundred points and divide those up. On a simple rating scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with the different parts of your life? And how well are you performing in meeting the expectations of the most important people in those different parts? That’s the four-way view, taking a picture of your current reality so that you can get a sense for what’s working, what’s not, and what steps you might take to adjust that are within your control, that are good for us and good for yourself, that enable you to create a greater sense of alignment or purpose.

The four-way view is a tool for seeing your life as a whole because “not everything that we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” as the great James Baldwin once said. That’s what you have to do as a leader: Look at your reality as clearly as you can, with an unfiltered view of what’s actually going on, and see if you can make it better.

Knowledge@Wharton: When looking at these four areas, it’s hard as a parent to not compare yourself to other parents. One of the things you mention in your book is the “compare-and-despair trap.” Can you talk a little bit about that and how to overcome it?

Friedman: The compare-and-despair trap is a trap that far too many people, parents especially, fall into, and that’s judging your own value, your own sense of competence and your legitimacy as a parent by seeing yourself in comparison to other people. We know from years and years of psychological research that when you are too influenced in your own assessment of your value in the world and your value as a parent by the internalized sense of how others are doing — and it’s almost always the sense that they’re doing better than you — that you tend to turn those ill feelings on yourself. It results in a kind of downward spiral that depresses and inhibits your capacity to innovate and to make things better for yourself and your family and your business and your community.

One of the things that we focus on in the book and in the workshops is to help people to realize that everyone’s different. This was the mantra in our household when the kids were young. I have three kids. Everyone is different; no one is the same. Everyone’s on a different path, and the key is to focus first internally. That’s why we start with this principle of being real — your values, your vision. That’s the foundation, that’s the root for leaders, for parents. Who are you? What do you care about? Where are you going?

Surprisingly, perhaps, you might note that people are afraid to do that. It takes some courage to take a candid look at, “Well, what do I really want? What is my life all about? Why am I a parent? Why am I doing this?” But it’s liberating to do that. And that’s one of the reasons why we have coaching as a part of the work that we do, because it’s very hard on your own, in social isolation, to take a candid look at yourself because it’s very easy to fool yourself.

We train people on how to be an effective peer coach. Anyone can do it. You just need to have a healthy dose of compassion and curiosity, and a commitment to being open and to inquiring of each other about what and who really matters to you. When you do that in a social context, when you’re coaching each other, you’re much more likely to be aware of what’s inside you. And that gives you the capacity to persist in the face of the comparisons that are inevitable, especially in the digital era and the social media world, where it’s very easy to look at the polished, often false images that people self-present online and say, “Wow, how come I don’t have a cool vacation like that?” Or, “Wow, how come my kids don’t have beautiful clothes like that?” Or, “Wow, how come my kids are not going to this school?”

Focusing inside and building a network of people who are going to help you see yourself for who you are and the value that you bring helps cut into the compare-and-despair trap.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the best way for parents to engage kids so that they are on the same page?

Friedman: This seems to be the most fun and enlightening aspect of our program so far, and it’s what people are asking most about: “How do I connect with my kids in a more meaningful way?” The good news here is that it doesn’t take a lot to do that. Anyone can do it. But most of us are running on autopilot, not thinking about what we bring to our children, acting as the micro-managers that we hate at work by simply saying, “Do this, do that, and don’t question why. I’m your parent, so this is it.” No one wants to be managed that way. Why do we treat our kids that way?

“Looking at your life as a whole and how parenting fits into that helps you to gain a greater sense of control and clarity of purpose.”

The beginning for parents who want to build up greater trust and understanding and have more fun and meaningful connections with their kids is simply to get on the same page with your partner. “Here’s what I think Junior needs from me. What do you think Junior needs from you as a parent, as a leader in our family?” Talk about that candidly. Usually, parents have different views as to what their kids need, so just having that conversation is a benefit to the parenting partnership. And it helps the kids because those conversations usually lead to a better understanding of what it is that we need to find out from Junior when we approach him. That can be a very different conversation if your child is four than if he’s 14 or 24 or 40. But it’s important to do it, and all kinds of interesting things come up. There’s always some surprise, and it’s usually funny and mysterious.

One single dad who was very interested in trying to convey the value of learning to his son asked him, “What’s important to you in terms of what you want to learn?” And his son said, “I want to learn how to vacuum!” The dad was incredulous, but that’s what he said. You’re going to be surprised, but the key is to treat each child differently and to think about what does this child needs from me? And try to find a way to convey to them, “Junior, here’s what I think is important to you. Do I have it right? What am I missing?” Encourage the child to tell you, what does a good dad look like? What does a good mom really provide?

We give some guidance on that. We are not child therapists. We are organizational psychologists, but we have distilled the essential literature on child development. What is it that children need? And how do you think about each child with respect to what your children need? Safety and security, love and attention, moral direction and some sense of expectations as to what’s accepted and what’s not. How do you think about those things with respect to each of your children? Then build trust and gain knowledge by listening and talking to them.

Knowledge@Wharton: Caregivers also play a big role in many of our lives, especially with single parents. How should parents go about engaging caregivers in this kind of conversation? Should they?

Friedman: Of course. As a parent who is leading their lives and helping their children to grow on a strong foundation, you’ve got to think about who are the important stakeholders in the future of my life, my family? Who matters? Well, it’s not just your kids. It’s your boss, your co-workers, clients, customers, people at work — the network of people in your professional life. Then it’s your extended family as well as your community, friends, neighbors, social groups, etc. And it’s especially the people who help you to care for your children. It’s useful to talk to them in a different way than you talk to your kids, of course, but a similar kind of dialogue to build trust, strengthen connections, to enable you to lead them into the future that you’re trying to create. “Here is what I think is important to you, dear childcare worker, teacher.”

It’s crucial to share those values and also share your perception as to what they need from you, to help them do what is important to them. The more you know about what they care about, the easier it is for you to make adjustments that enable you to help them to do what they want to do, not only for your child, but perhaps in other parts of their professional lives. The more you can do that, the more trust you grow in the network of people surrounding you. This is what leaders do every day, the good ones. They’re building trusting relationships with the people around them so that when they’re trying to make moves to make things better, to create change, they’re going to have support for that.

Childcare workers and teachers, who are far too undervalued in our society, benefit a lot from respectful inquiry as to their interests. To treat them as a service provider that you’re paying for, and that you’re the customer, is usually a very bad approach.

“The compare-and-despair trap is one that far too many people, parents especially, fall into.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Much of this depends on really good, clear communication. Where do you see some of the breakdowns happening?

Friedman: That’s a great question. There are many. Mostly, the problem is that people are too pressed into being non-reflective, reactive, and they feel rushed and tend to be abrupt in their interactions, especially with people whom they see every day and they take for granted. The big problem is in not taking a breath and being a bit more mindful about who you’re talking to. What do they see when they look at you? Pause for a moment and take what I call the leadership leap. Look inside their heads, their hearts and through their eyes, and see yourself. What do they see?

That’s generally a good exercise, and it doesn’t take much to do that. You just pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What is it that this person needs from me that I can provide, that’s going to help them in a way that serves my interests, as well?” That’s really the heart of leadership: how you help other people see that what you’re trying to do is good for them and for you.

But it doesn’t happen by magic. No one is going to do that for you. You have to do that, which is why it’s so important to think of yourself as a leader, as a parent — not as someone demanding things of other people, but as inspiring other people to move forward with you.

Knowledge@Wharton: You write a lot in the book about the experimental mindset. Can you describe what that is and why it’s important?

Friedman: It is essential to think of yourself as someone who is continually innovating, as the great leaders do. They never stand still. They’re always looking for better ways to get things done and to enable the people around them to help them to make things better. I like to think of us as scientists in the laboratory of our lives, and that we’re always looking for new knowledge, trying to develop better knowledge about our world.

To experiment is to think about what you can do to make things better for you and for the people around you. You get a lot smarter about the kinds of things you can do if you begin with, “What really matters to me? Who really matters to me? What do they really need?” Because when you have those stakeholder dialogues, whether it’s with your kids, your caregivers, your boss, what you typically find is that what other people expect of you is a little different than what you thought. It’s also generally a little less than what you thought, which is a very important insight and quite liberating because you realize that there’s less stress on you than you are carrying around in your head.

In the book, we describe the six categories we’ve created of different experiments that parents do when they go through this process of discovery to see, “Well, what can we change?” We can practice shared values. Some families decide, “Hey, let’s put on a board the four or five things that stand for who we are as a family.” By doing that, you’re serving all kinds of interests — not just your kids and yourself — but you’re also realizing the power of articulating values.

A number of the experiments involve quality time, uninterrupted, non-distracted time away from whatever those distractions might be, and it’s usually the digital world. We have all kinds of experiments with playing board games; going for walks in the community that might involve picking up trash as a way to signify the value of caring for the environment while interacting with neighbors; experimenting with how you delegate with people at work so that you can free up time for your family while enabling employees to become more capable, and perhaps learning something about what it’s like to mentor people, which you can then transfer back to your family.

“Don’t be afraid to think of yourself as a leader at home.”

One of the more powerful stories in the book is about a heterosexual couple who had a child with a rare genetic disorder. They’re both successful, ambitious, mid-30s, rising in their respective careers. But their child had this illness, and the woman was reluctant to talk about it with her boss. But after doing this self-reflection and talking to her spouse and coaches, she decided to bring this up “because it’s an important part of who I am, and my boss should know about it.”

They also decided together as a couple to do a fundraiser for research on this disorder, which turned out to be really successful and helped them see that they could take action and not be reactive and dependent on the help of others. They could take their hardship and their keen focus on this particular illness and convert that into a social benefit that was going to be useful for others.

When her boss heard about this and saw that she was trying to make an impact and that this was an important part of who she was, that elevated his perception of her leadership capacity. He saw from this initiative that she’d undertaken that she had more leadership potential than he’d earlier seen. By coming forward with something that was really important in her life, she created all kinds of new support for herself and potential for her to have greater impact at work. There are lots more examples, and everyone does something different.

Knowledge@Wharton: If parents want to incorporate leadership techniques into parenting, what is the first step to take?

Friedman: First, don’t be afraid to think of yourself as a leader at home. Some people think, “Oh, am I going to be using spreadsheets and [become] a business person with my kids? No, that seems inappropriate.” It might be, although some people in our program are really excited about taking all the things that they know about how to lead at work and realizing, “Wait, this is something that I can use with my home and my kids and in dealing with my friends. It’s going to help me.”

A lot of the experiments people do have to do with just being better at coordinating logistics and using tools for helping them do that. The place to start, as we state in the book, is to take a look at yourself and your values. Look at your current reality in terms of what matters most to you. That is the starting point. It might seem trite, but it is essential.

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