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The gift of a leadership perspective

A CEO's lessons from having a son with autism.

6 min read



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One of the most difficult things for leaders to achieve is proper balance between their demanding work schedule and their home life. Not only do we struggle to find the right time allocation for each, but we also need to be able to separate the two in a way that doesn’t blur the lines between our professional and personal realms.

This challenge is compounded when leaders encounter a situation that demands more than its “normal” time requirements, such as when work stresses spike or when something at home requires more of our time, energy and emotional bandwidth than usual.

This is exactly what happened to Brian Harper, CEO of Rouse Properties, a private real estate investment trust headquartered in New York City. (Rouse Properties formally debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in January 2012. It was acquired by Brookfield Asset Management and delisted in July 2016. It owns 38 malls in 23 states encompassing approximately 24.5 million square feet of retail space.)

Brian and his wife, Laleh, are the proud parents of Caleb, 11, and Zoe, 20 months. When Caleb was 2, he started to demonstrate genius qualities, such as his ability to memorize enormous quantities of detailed information. Despite this rare gift, it soon became apparent that Caleb was lagging in his growth motor skill and speech development. Subsequent testing determined that Caleb was autistic.

Naturally, such a diagnosis was shocking and devastating for the family. They didn’t know how to react, and their initial response was to keep the diagnosis private from family and friends while bringing Caleb to various forms of therapy to develop and maximize his potential. However, the more they began to understand autism, the more they realized they were going about it the wrong way by keeping Caleb’s condition secret from their loved ones, which Brian to this day feels terribly about. More on this later.

I learned a number of leadership tips from this conversation that I believe have wide benefit.

Learn to gain a new perspective

It’s easy to get down when circumstances don’t seem to go our way. Many of us start to see our glasses as half-empty and make excuses for our lack of happiness and/or productivity. When I asked Brian about the impact that Caleb has had on his family and role as a leader, however, he immediately began to talk about the blessing that his son has been to them all, such as their ability to become more caring and empathetic. There was no hint of shame, disappointment or wishful thinking, just joy, pride and optimism.

Identify and develop strengths

Harper‘s perspective helps him to see things differently at work, too. Just as Caleb has great strengths and significant challenges, each employee at Rouse excels in some areas more so than others. As Harper sees it, it is his job as leader to provide internal coaching and mentoring support to help his people shine and excel.

To this end, Harper looks for mentors who will give of themselves freely to nurture and support less-experienced or skilled employees. He also has shifted the company’s goal-setting and assessment process to quarterly rather than annually, which keeps the focus on growth and learning while raising the level of internal transparency about how people are evaluated. 

Be careful with your time

I asked Harper about how he is able to balance the demands of his personal and professional responsibilities. He responded by saying that he reflects meaningfully before each week, rigorously determining how to best to utilize his time. Though this means that he must often say “no” to requests for his time (such as solicitations to join corporate boards), he knows that these decisions free him for what he really needs to accomplish.

Choose your stressors

We all experience stress or things that upset us. In Harper’s case, he has chosen to take a potential stressor and transform it into a mission. He is more stressed about what many other parents of autistic children don’t have — such as adequate access to resources to help their children — than with his own situation. For this reason, he has joined the national board of directors of Autism Speaks and has assumed a leadership role within the organization (he will be hosting the upcoming Chef Gala in NYC.) He believes that too many parents and families are suffering in silence and deserve to be given the support — financial as well as social — that they need to best cope with their situations.

He learned a long time ago that mourning in silence is no way to go. Let others help you, which is exactly what helped Brian and his family through the initial shock of Caleb’s diagnosis.

Educate those around you

Just as a leader must inspire and educate their people, Harper feels that his role in creating greater awareness about autism includes helping the community at large (corporations, politicians, educators and others) better understand the condition and its impact. Many people, he said, look at an autistic child and see a whole person, thus failing to appreciate its impact on the child’s mind and body.

Think community

Leaders are responsible not only for individual success in the workplace but also to rally their people around a common goal and foster a sense of community. Harper said he hopes parents of autistic children do not follow in his family’s initial footsteps but rather come to terms more quickly with their situations and become part of the broader community. Early intervention, he says, is the key to maximizing a child’s growth and success. While there remains much to be done to properly fund and support autistic children, many resources do exist that cannot be shared if families who need it worry more about the stigma associated with autism than with providing care to their children.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at Download a free chapter of his upcoming leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.”

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