The Leadership and Parenthood Connection

Leadership & Parenthood Traits

Some time ago, my friend and colleague, Rob Collinsworth and I developed and delivered a well-received 1-day seminar that posited that key and essential leadership traits were not at all dissimilar from key and essential parenthood traits.  Our intent was to reassure up-and-coming leaders who considered themselves to be well performing parents that the basic skills and talents they used to raise good and well-adjusted children would be appropriately called upon to lead others in a work setting. Further, that those listening who were already considered good leaders and were comfortable in their leadership roles at work and who were now facing new challenges as parents of kids in the age range of 5 to…say 35 could be expected to leverage their leadership skills in developing and parenting their growing children.

We generally used the low-end age for kids at about 5 since kids younger than that are generally expected to just comply with instructions, directives, and “do it because I said so.”  I was kidding about the upper limit of 35 (I think).

So, what are these traits?  The following attributes were included in our presentation. Some of them or variations of them are included in my 20 Points for Success, discussed in a previous blog posting:

  • Lead by example
  • Set expectations
  • Provide recognition
  • Establish goals
  • Set boundaries
  • Provide a safe environment
  • Instill discipline
  • Maintain coolness under pressure and avoid over-reactions
  • Defend those in your charge
  • Provide insight, advice, and direction

Let’s look at them one at a time, albeit briefly, and consider some basic examples to generate introspection.

Lead by Example

What may appear axiomatic to most people, is clearly not always the case. We have seen countless examples of bad examples, haven’t we? One wonders just how anyone in a leadership or parenting role can reasonably expect one’s followers to act properly and behave appropriately if the leader does not.

  • Leading by example as parents: Don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Demonstrate a solid work ethic and show respect for the other parent and children.
  • Leading by example at work: Work hard, don’t complain or engage in rumors. Act with honesty and integrity at all times.

Set Expectations

People tend to strive to live up to the expectations set by themselves and others. Sometimes, these are hard to differentiate, with one probably being a factor of the other. When followers know what is expected of them, they can better prepare themselves to attain that goal and do the work necessary to achieve it. Low expectations often result in substandard performance. Without lofty (yet achievable) goals and the stated expectations of others (or self) we can lose the drive to succeed. Most people need motivation to achieve, what high (but not unreasonable) expectations can provide.

  • Setting expectations as parents: Tell your son that he is really only a “C” student and watch him bring home C’s and D’s. “Why try harder if no one really expects me to do well – they’re probably right.” Tell your daughter that she is at least a “B” student, and you expect some A’s mixed in too, and watch the child work hard to prove you right.  She will likely not want to disappoint you by falling short of what you believed she could achieve as a parent.
  • Setting expectations at work: Demonstrate confidence in our staff members and remind them just how far they can go and how much success they can achieve. This starts with adequate training, honest feedback, and counseling (positive and negative as necessary), and recognition when success is achieved.

Provide Recognition

No, we don’t need to go overboard with this, as I am sure some of you are thinking.  I don’t mean to suggest the equivalent of the dreaded “participation trophy” or the daily and perfunctory recognition ceremony found in some organizations. What I am suggesting is that we, as leaders, don’t fail to recognize excellent performance properly or those who have gone above and beyond what was expected.  Some recognition can be very formal, but most of what I am referring to is the informal “Attaboy” or Attagirl” that can be quickly and easily presented.  These can take many forms, including an email, a handwritten note (better) or maybe a brief visit and a handshake to congratulate the person (even better). It’s important to do this in a timely manner too – not waiting too long past the event to take note. For many years, I handed out a cartoonish “Attaboy” or “Attagirl” and even the occasional “Awshit” to people who worked for me or around me.  They were generally well-received, though in some cases while in the Army, some crusty old sergeants didn’t seem too pleased to get one – but I usually found them posted on their bulletin boards or under their desktop glass within a few days. Most people really do like to be thanked or recognized for what they have done – it’s human nature, I believe. I should now take my own advice and do more of this myself – I have certainly fallen short of my own recognition goals for the people around me who continually made me and our organizations successful. I pledge to do better! Someone once told me that the most powerful tool a leader has is at the end of his right arm – a simple handshake can mean an awful lot. And remember, a pat on the back is far better than a pat on the head!

  • Providing recognition as parents: Take some time during your week to recognize one or each of your kids at the dinner table or, in my case, call them on the phone and tell them how proud you are of the adult they have become. Consider how that would make you feel as a son or daughter!
  • Providing recognition at work: Years ago, I learned a neat way to recognize outstanding performance at work from a fellow military officer while I was working in the Pentagon. I have saved this one for fairly rare occasions, but it’s a nice thing to do and seems to have a far-reaching impact if done right.  Craft a nice letter to the employee’s parents or spouse to tell them how happy and pleased you are to be fortunate enough to work with their family member. Be honest and be specific. Let that person know how proud you are of their loved one, and that you suspect they are equally proud of them.

Establish Goals

Without goals, we tend to be rudderless.  Many profess that the best way to better and more quickly achieve our goals is to write them down and refer to them often. I suppose that has merit, but I have never done that. Maybe I should give it a try.  In any event, it makes sense to identify and strive for certain goals in life – at home and at work. In my private organizations and previously in the military, we ask everyone to list the goals they achieved or tried to achieve in the last year and then articulate the goals they have established for themselves for the upcoming year. This is generally done in conjunction with organizational goals, but some can and should be personal in nature. The key to effective goal setting is to make them reasonable, achievable, and worthy of your time and effort.

  • Establishing goals as parents: We can help our kids establish realistic and achievable goals by showing them they can be short-term or long term or something in between. Do well in school, get a college degree, land the job of choice, marry into a wealthy family (wait – just kidding!).
  • Establishing goals at work: Here we can work with our employees and subordinates to help them identify areas where they can exercise some control over their future achievements. Perhaps this might include obtaining a specific job-related certification, competing for a position within (or even outside) the company, or working on their public speaking abilities to enhance their potential.

Set Boundaries

Just as guard rails help keep us on the road; we need boundaries in life as well. Reasonable and appropriate boundaries help us find and maintain focus and guide us toward the destination of choice. Absent boundaries, our risk of failure increases.

  • Setting boundaries as parents: The term “curfew” comes to mind!  Parents also establish other boundaries for their children that may include who they can associate with at school or at play, clubs or teams they can join, or how much time they need to devote to their homework.
  • Setting boundaries at work: Similarly, leaders often set boundaries for their staff members by determining work hours, appropriate work attire, how much time should be devoted to certain projects, how much company money they are permitted to spend, and so on.

Provide a Safe Environment

I think that every leader and parent understands the obvious responsibilities we have to ensure the safety and security of those for whom we are responsible. Humans rightly look to leaders and parents to readily accept that role and exercise it continually.

  • Providing a safe environment as parents: From the caution of “don’t run with scissors” to warnings about drug and alcohol use and abuse, the hazards of driving, and countless other opportunities parents have to address safety and security – that part of parenting in NEVER done. Our “kids” are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and we still worry that they may not have listened to us when they were living under our roof. We still remind them to drive carefully and call us when they get home. We, as parents, remain fixated on their safety. It’s our nature to want to and to strive to provide a safe environment for our family. I bet that my wife and I are not the only parents who now have to call our kids when WE get home from a visit, so they know we are safe. The circle of life, once again.
  • Providing a safe environment at work: We are charged as leaders to provide, to the greatest degree possible, a safe environment for our employees, both physically and emotionally.  Certainly, in today’s day and age, physical security and safety are at the forefront. We endorse and practice everything from “active shooter” drills to installing cypher locks on our doors. But the safe environment we must also provide has to include safety from all manner of harassment and injustice. We have professionals in HR and elsewhere who can help us do that, but the ultimate responsibility is on the leader. People will also naturally perform better when they are confident in their safety – physical and emotional. They need to be relatively free of such concerns if we are to expect them to function at their highest levels of productivity.

Instill Discipline

Some people react oddly to the term “discipline.” I suppose it conjures up the notion of physical pain, corporal punishment, fear, and anxiety. That is NOT the kind of discipline I am calling for.  Discipline in this context is adherence to rules, processes, and procedures. Discipline helps families and workplaces avoid chaos, dysfunction, misunderstandings, and failure.

  • Instilling discipline as parents: Again, this can be manifested in strict rules of the house for homework, errands, chores, use of acceptable language, or even how we address our parents and their adult friends.
  • Instilling discipline at work: In the workplace, discipline, to one degree or another, is expected by everyone. As we instill discipline at work (hours, breaks, product expectations, dress, etc.) we must also address what the consequences of a failure to adhere to such disciplines may entail. Leaders often must dole out unpleasant consequences when failures of required discipline are present. Without consequences, the leader (as would the parent) risks losing control or worse, respect.

Maintain Coolness Under Pressure

This one can be especially challenging both at home and at work. Yet, coolness under pressure is certainly a sign of emotional maturity and is also a trait that is generally expected of parents AND leaders.  Of course, we all know and can recall countless instances of parents and bosses “blowing their respective tops” as the situation dictates, but we also probably realize that that behavior is rarely productive (though it may feel good for a while!!).

  • Maintaining coolness as parents: Kids naturally expect parents to be mature enough to handle just about anything that comes their way. Broken bones, lousy grades, calls from teachers (or principals), or when we really want a challenge – the police. To say that it’s hard to remain cool and calm when it really seems you are losing control of the situation, is an understatement, at best. But, that said, good parents do their best to be that pillar of strength in a storm and the people who can be counted on to bring the entire family through that storm unharmed. Speaking for me as a father, I was, I think (and my sons may disagree) successful in this endeavor more often than not.  I know (and my sons will NOT disagree with me here) that there were times when I could be “rather unpleasant” toward them due to some infraction or another. I could remain covered in what my sons termed a “pissed mist” for some time!  They knew enough then, and maybe even now, that when so covered, it’s a good idea to give me space and time. I do love that term, though – descriptive, isn’t it?
  • Maintaining coolness at work: Those who work for and around us are also expecting us, as leaders, to exhibit coolness and calmness when storms are raging all around. It can be unsettling for employees to witness their boss in the middle of a meltdown when things get rough. When the boss collapses under pressure, it’s not long before the dominoes start to fall throughout the organization.  In the Army, we used to say (and I may be dating myself here) that no matter how bad things looked, “the Russians aren’t in the motor pool.” This was just meant to illustrate that it isn’t that bad, so get hold of yourself.  I like to tell folks in similar circumstances to “stop practice bleeding.” We tend to think the worst is happening or will happen, and we can get so worked up we can’t function in a Stoic and responsible way others demand of us. So, consider the facts, remain calm, and don’t practice bleeding – it does you no good.

Defend Those in Your Charge

All I mean to convey here is our responsibility to protect and defend the interests of those in our charge. Our default should be that “our kids” or “our employee” or “my direct subordinate” is not at fault – unless and until facts and circumstances prove otherwise. It’s an extension of the “benefit of the doubt” rule, I suppose.

  • Defending those in your charge as parents: When the school administrator calls about an infraction perpetrated by YOUR daughter, your little angel, I hope your first reaction is that either the administrator has her confused with another student or another student caused my daughter to do something “wrong.” Now, if and when it comes to light that your daughter WAS in the wrong, then as a parent, you would be expected to fix that and ensure it’s not repeated.
  • Defending those in your charge at work: My point here is that if we are not ready to defend and stand up for our staff members or employees, then who will? I have heard any number of false accusations leveled at people who have worked for me, and if I had reacted reflexively, I may have wrongly disciplined that person. Leaders must let the dust settle, obtain the facts, consider the circumstances, evaluate that information, allow the employee the chance to speak and then, based on all of that data, decide on the best course of action.

Provide Insight, Advice, and Direction

This is primarily why we were selected for the leadership position we occupy. We were not hired or otherwise placed in the leadership role to “play each instrument” but rather to “lead the band.” We have to be OK with not knowing every word of every regulation, rule, or procedure within our own area of responsibility. As the leader, we should trust those around us enough to know those things and keep us well-informed as necessary. I remember back in the mid-1980s while serving overseas, my command underwent a rather deep and significant inspection by a senior Army team. I was asked in the out-briefing about some nuance of a particular Army regulation. I couldn’t answer the officer’s question and was embarrassed in front of my team. I felt (as did the other officer) that, as the commander, I should have known this elusive and minor fact. When the briefing ended, I immediately sought the counsel of my boss and told him that I think we just failed this important inspection in part because I was a moron! He laughed and told me to go back to my office and not worry about it. He told me then what I never forgot…that my job was to lead the men and women who were expected to know that level of detail – otherwise he didn’t need me.  My lifelong thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Dewey Browder who taught me that important lesson.  Lead the band and don’t try to play every instrument. Dewey was still my boss, but I think he became my friend that day – and he still is!

  • Providing insight, advice, and direction as parents: If you are a parent of anyone over the age of 15, you may have used an expression similar to “you can learn from my mistakes the easy way or make your own the hard way.” Why our kids prefer the hard way, I may never understand, but they often do. We will always want to tell our growing kids where the rough roads are going to be, how to avoid problems and be better prepared in life…but they don’t always want to listen. I know that I certainly didn’t listen to or apply every word of advice from my parents, nor have my own, now grown sons, always listen to my wife and me, and I am pretty sure the cycle will continue with our grandchildren. Oh well, at least THAT part will be fun to watch!
  • Providing insight, advice, and direction at work: As I illustrated earlier, leaders can’t do everyone’s job, only our own, which is to lead. We are rightly expected to share our insights based on our experience, offer advice and counsel when needed, and certainly to provide direction. But we must be careful to not overstep these boundaries. When we become “action officers” and not leaders, we risk undercutting others and overburdening ourselves. We can’t be effective leading if we spend all our time “doing.” Hire good people, provide that advice and direction, and let them do their job. You may be pleasantly surprised at how hard people will work and how successful they can become.

An early version of this article appeared in my book, “Watering Rocks: How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader.”  It has been updated for this article.

Dave served a full 22-year career as an Army officer and followed that with more than 2 decades as a senior executive in several consulting firms in the Northern Virginia area. He has managed and led thousands of soldiers, Army civilians, and private sector employees in more than 43 years in leadership positions. He speaks and writes about leadership, relationship management, career transition, and keys to success.  READ MORE

David S. Maurer

Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Ret.) , Project Management Professional (PMP)



Books By Dave

Watering Rocks - How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader - Book by David S. Maurer
Leadership Essentials - How to Lead with Passion, Pride and Purpose - Book by David S. Maurer