Parents as Leaders

Updated: Feb 18

Exploring a Leadership Development approach to Parenting:

I have always been fascinated by business, and especially by how people function in a business. The impact of the individual/collective on the success or failure of a business, as well as the impact of business on individuals is layered and intriguing. Luckily, there is so much information on leadership and business development - so many conferences, courses, workshops, books, theories and methodologies, that there is no need to identify a new angle on how to lead. But still, more and more books are written and more courses and conferences are launched on the subject of leadership, culture development and business growth every year.

Yes, I understand that there are many people fulfilling leadership roles in the world but there are many many more who fulfill parenting roles, and being a parent is possibly more complex and bewildering. Despite this, there is a fraction of the models, methodologies or material available. I have found, however, that there are an infinite number of opinions that people have about how I should be parenting and I feel that now may be a good time for people to share their models of parenting, based on their own personal experiences, so that other intrepid explorers have a bit of a road map. I’ll start.

One of the business related leadership development theories that I know is or has been used in countless organisations is that of ‘The Leadership Pipeline’, a book written by Ram Charan and Stephen Drotter. This is what made me think about the need for a model, to help me develop my own sorely needed parenting skills. It seems to be so much easier to define and demonstrate ‘Good Leadership’ in action, but infinitely more difficult to define what it is to be a “Good Parent”.

There are countless definitions of ‘skills of a good leader’. However, when I google ‘skills of a good parent’ most of the stuff has the potential to send me into the zone that is so hard to return from - the “I do not fit the criteria for this job” zone - and immediately makes me feel judged and exposed for my incompetence. Some of the statements I came across in my first search:

  • “Be a role model for them.” I am a role model for them, I have a glass of wine pretty much every night. I laugh a lot and cry a lot and can throw a reasonably good tantrum. What am I meant to be role modelling?

  • “Don’t do things for them that they can do for themselves.” Like what? What age group is this?

  • “Don’t shout at your children.” Well, this is easy if they did the things for themselves that they can do for themselves.

  • “You know you are a good mom when your child smiles 90% of the time” Well clearly I am crap. Has the author of that piece had a teenager?

  • “When your children share with other children” Seriously? Of course they share… if they are forced to. That’s why they don’t smile 90% of the time.

Some of the guidance may be right for a toddler - if that toddler is in the middle of the somehow defined ‘normal’ spectrum, but what if it isn’t? Does that make you ‘not a good parent’ when the child doesn’t smile or share or say please and thank you or maybe doesn’t talk at all?

What may be good parenting of a toddler is not necessarily good parenting of a teen. Actually, that is a bad example, they may be similar for a toddler and a teen, but what is good parenting for a 4-year-old would be different to a 12-year-old child and would be really bad for a 19-year-old suffering - with anxiety - or a 14 year old child gifted in the arts or another 14 year old who is doing okay but hasn’t yet found their superpower.

My point is: given that our children go through a number of ‘milestones’ and stages in their own personal growth trajectory, it seems that each child and each stage requires a completely different mindset and skillset, not to mention fortitude, a method of recharging resources and an endless supply of big girl panties (which is my sister's idea of the equivalent of big balls)!

Just as I thought I had got the hang of one stage of one child's development, I realised that what had just started working didn’t work anymore. My child had moved on suddenly (overnight) and what was before me required me to rethink everything.

The deeper I got into the parenting process the more I longed for a coach, or a model, something like the Leadership Pipeline (but for parents) that I could use as a guide; something that would apply to the stages of parenting in the way that the Leadership Pipeline applies to leadership, to help navigate what I need to be and do with what tools in order to do my job of parenting, mentoring and equipping the next generation successfully and sustainably.

For me, parenting has felt like I would imagine finding myself blindfolded on a 1000km hike along a cliff edge when I expected a short walk in the park would feel, hence the need for some navigation tools.

The Leadership Pipeline

Drotter’s book, which most human resource practitioners will have read, speaks about 6 “passages” that a person goes through when moving from one level to another in an organisation as they ‘climb the corporate ladder’, so to speak. It talks about the importance of learning new skills and letting go of other skills at each transition point. It also talks about the importance of being supported in the transition, in order to be successful in the new role. Actually, it is an excellent book that is useful as a source for business and life coaching.

I thought this would be a good model to explore and have tried to translate this theory to parenting, to help me adapt my skills to the requirements of the job. In essence, is there a ‘career path’ for this ‘for life’ role we take on?

The ‘Parenting Pipeline’

Just you

The maternal instinct kicks in (or not) and we decide that we want children (or don’t). Before the baby is born, we would be at the ‘Manage Self’ level of a parenting career, possibly even with a ‘coworker’. Before pregnancy, we take it for granted that we can eat or drink anything, go anywhere or nowhere at all, and do what we like within, or at least close to, the bounds of social acceptability. Although we have worries, often lots of them, we still have choices that should take others into consideration, but essentially choices that are mostly about ourselves. Me.

Other people’s existence and well-being, generally, are not our responsibility. If we are codependent, we may think they are, but they are not. We can still attain a state of being called ‘peace of mind’. This however disappears - forever - when we fall pregnant.

From then onwards, everything we do and think directly affects another Living Thing that is totally and utterly dependent on us. It kicks and wriggles in its mobile (and heavy) container while we attempt not to eat a second packet of Zoo biscuits or rush off to find a loo in the middle of a food shop or a business meeting. We may ponder how strong it is, and how active it is. We worry if we haven’t felt it kick for a while.

If we are working, we have to deal with bosses who don’t understand. Even if they have been pregnant, they may have sailed through it without feeling sick so they are even less understanding. I was one of those bosses who told a team member that she was “pregnant, not sick - so pull it together” while she tried to appear professional, in control and worthy of the position she held. Luckily for others, in my second pregnancy, I had to move to an office next to the bathroom because of constant nausea, so I was forced to be more understanding.

We have weird dreams that probably should be left un-interpreted. We read the right books and may go to the right antenatal classes. For pregnant mothers, there is a lot of reading material and guidance on what to expect and how to look after oneself. We learn to breathe under stress (this is one skill to hold on to for the next 40 years: remembering to breathe is, in essence, life giving). It seems to be the one phase that we can actually prepare for, at least physically, in the transition we are going to go through. This is good.

Passage 1: Becoming You and a baby

The whole world changes when this Living Thing comes out, either the way it was meant to, or not. While your self-image is either good or not so good before or during pregnancy, it most definitely isn’t that post pregnancy. The baby has come out but not many people would believe you at first glance. This is a lot to deal with in itself!

On top of this, what felt like a robust, strong and forceful personality inside comes out as this helpless, tiny little … helpless, tiny little Living Thing.

I thought I had a handle of caring for my baby when I was still in hospital but back at home, even with Mom and sisters alongside me, I was terrified I was going to kill it with my lack of competence before it had been in the open air for a day. I didn’t lay it down quite at the right angle, it was overdressed or underdressed or difficult to dress without feeling like I may pull an arm off at any moment. The feeding, bathing, changing, (no) sleeping thing, mixed in with the Day 3 depression they warn you about, gave me the first inkling that this was not going to be a walk in the park and that there may be a little more to it than I had assumed or had read in a book, yet I was lucky because I did not fall into the dreaded and dreadful postnatal depression that so many women do, although I did catch a glimpse of what it may be like. There is just no telling what is going to happen.

If we are lucky, we bond with our child immediately, but not everyone does or is quite sure that they have, which in itself can be a private shame. We are told we will ‘just know’ but sometimes it is difficult to know through the contrasting fog of sleeplessness and alarm. While there are a few/many moments of pure bliss - when you feel at one with the world and this child - this feeling is interspersed with many moments of sheer terror or awe that this little thing can scream so loudly for so long and so often! Some of us cope and some of us don’t, and most often it’s a combination of, or seesaw between, both. Our paths are all unique.

Once you have had the baby, you look back at your relatively self indulgent life and realise that there may be competencies (skills, attitudes and behaviours, in corporate speak) that you need to gain and some you need to lose in order to make it through this transition more effectively.

The thing is, there doesn’t really seem to be a norm, although many books emphatically tell you otherwise. Anything can make you feel like you are a great or a shit parent, and the only thing I found vaguely useful was having other parents around. Except the ones who had it all worked out. How anyone can be so certain of anything in this role, I have yet to discover, and I am 21 years into the journey. Anyone who was certain about something, such as those who said ‘you have to do sleep therapy’ or ‘no, it is completely wrong’, sent me into a spin. I preferred the people who said, “shit, I have no idea - give it a try”. I remember my sister saying to me that her daughter only slept through at 18 months. The idea was devastating: I would never survive 18 months, never! Neither of mine slept through before the age of 5. So that is 5 years’ x 2 children = 10 years! I did survive.

In hindsight (I was too tired to think about it at the time) some of the competencies that would have been useful included:

  • The ability to be selfish (you have to look after yourself to have the capacity to look after someone else - think of the airline example of putting your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others). Maybe ‘self-care’ sounds better because it doesn’t have the same bitter connotations, but I mean ‘selfish’ all the same. We have children for our own sakes, not theirs (although most of us are thinking about cute little babies, not teenagers, at the time of making the decision) so perhaps we should hang onto a little bit of that self interest for the purposes of our own growth and development as well.

  • The ability to surrender to another’s needs at the same time as being selfish.

  • Acceptance comes at the end of the grief cycle, which include denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and then yes, acceptance (ref: Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s Grief Cycle).

  • Acceptance of the fact that you have lost your peace of mind. It’s gone. For good.

  • Being able to come to terms with the fog of not enough sleep and learning to sleep when you can.

  • Ability to ask for help – be more demanding of it.

  • Ability to stop what you are doing with little or no warning.

  • Ability to listen to your intuition over the plethora of advice from others. Hear the advice and choose your own path or follow someone else’s lead that feels right.

  • Retaining a healthy self-identity and ignoring what feels like criticism, particularly self-criticism.

  • Ability to observe, to stand back and know that you will get through it.

  • Partners are in it, too. Gender can’t be a distinguishing factor anymore.

Competencies that may be less useful:

  • Total self-sufficiency – we all need help.

  • Reliance on others’ opinions or advice against your own instinct.

  • Critical judgement of others. It may make you feel better now but remember that this is just passage one, there is a long way to go and success in passage one does not guarantee success at the next level.

  • Being right.

Once we have done the ‘baby thing’ and got the hang of it, or at least made our way through it, the little thing has become a toddler and a whole new world opens up.

Passage 2: Becoming You and A Toddler

There is no real mark that defines the shift. You are not promoted or moved into a new job with a new office, not even a bigger desk in an open plan. No one congratulates you or acknowledges your achievement. You don’t even pass ‘Begin’. Zip.

There is also nothing that says “ok, time to shift gear”. We just find ourselves having to move the detergents from the bottom cupboard under the sink to the top cupboard far away from the sink so that they are a pain to get to. We buy plug covers for the plugs, and move anything breakable. We buy potties that the dogs (or toddlers) start to drink (or eat) from, so speed becomes a necessity. Anything precious goes and we start buying covers for couches. I found that Barney and Teletubbies became my best friends. I found nasty sugar- and gluten-filled foods that I knew should never be made available to desperate mothers, and I bought them anyway. I knew I should hold out and make the kids eat the good stuff, but I didn’t. Yes, I have already acknowledged that I should have. By this point, ‘peace of mind’ wasn’t even a goal, just a moment of ‘peace’ would have been nice, but that too had gone.

Anyone who has a toddler has had the experience of them trying to look between your thighs as you sit on the loo to see what you are doing. Nowhere is sacred. We learn to interpret grunts, screams and tantrums to mean ‘please can I have a biscuit?’ or “I am really tired and would like to go to sleep now but I am finding it very difficult to let go.”

What worked wonders for one child has absolutely no impact on another which can make us feel like we are failing, and what is even worse, is that it is hard not to interpret the ‘little shit’s’ behaviour as deliberate. There were so many times I caught myself feeling like this toddler before me was my equal, it was capable of doing these heinous things deliberately to test me. It had thought out the best way to drive me around the bend and it was succeeding in this mind madness game that only it knew the rules to. But I was ‘the adult’, so the books told me, and I had to be fair but firm and loving, despite the ‘call to war’ that I felt was taking place.

Competencies that may be useful in this period:

  • Patience and counting to 10: deep breaths.

  • Ability to stop and check the rationality of our thought processes on a regular basis. Self observation becomes the vital activity between thought and action.

  • Ultra-vigilance; a puddle can be turned into the enemy, as can a box of detergent or the dog's water bucket or a discarded toothpick or just a pebble.

  • The ability to function without full control of any situation.

  • Flexibility; physical and mental.

  • The grace to know when we actually can’t cope and to phone a friend.

Competencies less useful:

  • Any illusion of control we may still have.

  • The illusion of perfection; having a perfect home, perfect marriage and perfect children just isn’t a viable goal.

  • The illusion that one can still have the energy, let alone be a sex goddess, at this particular point in life.

I have to say, if I had it over again, there are a couple of things I would change my approach towards (such as TV and junk food), but at the time they were my life support system, without them, my children, or I, may not have survived: we will never know.

Passage 3: Becoming You and Little people

My proper introduction to ‘Mother of a Little Person’ came when I arrived home from work, tired and grumpy, and I saw that the picnic mat was set up on my bedroom floor with my daughter on it. Here we go – an imaginary picnic – hold me back! So we sat and drank our imaginary tea and we chatted about the day and as the conversation lulled, I picked up an imaginary piece of chocolate cake: “yum, just what I feel like after a busy day, what a yummy piece of chocolate cake”. I saw her looking at me quizzically. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I am enjoying this chocolate cake,” I replied, with an indulgent smile. She looked at me with disdain and said “There is no chocolate cake, Mommy.” Okay, why did I feel like a very small person? And in my head I was saying “and why do you get to decide all the rules for the game?” in the tone of a very small person.

It may be at this point that I realised that to them, I was not actually a person, I was a Mom, which is not the same thing as a person. They have learnt to articulate their needs but they have no concept that you may have any needs, let alone, that your needs should be considered. They decide when it is time to picnic in the bedroom, with no chocolate cake, or that you are a donkey or tiger on who’s back they can ride, the minute you get home from work or have to make supper. They believe that just before bedtime is a great time to bake, the middle of the night is a great time to snack or early morning is play time. You don’t have needs.

While you can start to reason with these now human beings, it is also the time that their fears may start to emerge: of the dark, of being alone in a room, of school, of not going to school, of anything, of nothing. The world, which can be a great adventure for one child, can seem very unsafe to another, and it is so hard to appreciate that what we may think is nothing to worry about can be crippling for a small person. It takes some doing to respond to their fear rather than from our sense that there is nothing to worry about.

In my experience, this was also the period of real or imaginary stomach aches, insomnia and bad dreams and their real fear of something bad happening to me. It was also the time that I realized, to my relief, that they are both gifted with a wonderful sense of humour, a true love of animals and compassion for other beings. I think that may be where their common personality traits end.