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Leadership lessons from parenthood, part 2

5 min read


When my youngest son graduated high school this year, I celebrated with a blog post about what I’ve learned about leadership by being a parent.

SmartBlog readers had a lively discussion on the post, and several asked me to address some other lessons learned, including how employees and children are different as well as what role compassion and creativity play in the workplace. So in celebration of my boy’s first week of college, let’s continue the discussion.

Employees are not children (and visa versa)

One reader made an insightful statement on the last post: “You don’t have unconditional love for your employees, and you can’t fire or lay off your child. Moreover, employees don’t want to be treated like children (quite a common problem). Totally different relationship.”

I totally agree.

That’s a confusion we don’t want to make for a host of reasons. How many dysfunctional work relationships would be fixed if both bosses and employees got rid of their mommy and daddy issues? Lots!

Having said that, I’ve certainly learned a few ways in which treating employees and children similarly can be helpful. Specifically, I’ve found that when I take a mentoring attitude towards both — not telling them what to do but helping them see opportunities in the situation where they are only seeing obstacles, both employees and children thrive. Mentoring in this way challenges our autocratic and unconditional love stereotypes for both bosses and parents. But, if you haven’t tried mentoring your child (or your employee), give it a try. It totally works! (And cuts down on the sturm und drang at home and at work!)

Leading with compassion: Balancing our emotions with our duty

Another reader says, “My expectations of myself and others have changed over the years as our two boys have grown. Maybe the next post will include ‘lead with compassion’ and ‘tell it like it is (or ‘Don’t talk down to people’)’?”

I really appreciate this insight. I think at the core of it is a truth that parenthood connects us to the success of our “underlings” in a more emotional way than being a boss typically does. At work, we are given permission to look out for our emotional interests more than at home, but too often these forces get out of balance.

We often fall prey to shutting ourselves down too much emotionally as bosses, and not enough as parents. So how do you manage this balance of doing the job that needs to be done, protecting your own emotional balance, and having the right kind of emotional connection with children and employees?

We can learn to connect through compassion to both our children and our employees while still doing what needs to be done, saying what needs to be said and managing the tension between emotion and duty. To manage this tension successfully, we have to recognize that compassion isn’t the same as empathy. Empathy is good because it helps us connect to what they’re going through. If they just need an ear, empathy is awesome, but it’s only the first step towards compassion. When it comes time to give difficult news or lay down an unpopular decision, we need to go beyond empathy and use compassion.

We have compassion for someone and still give them “tough love” (see my previous post) when we don’t put ourselves in the same emotional space that they’re in (as empathy does). Compassion requires that we do the hard work that must be done — including “telling it like it is” but with an appreciation of their emotional challenge and a true desire for their success in our hearts. Believe it or not, if you are really feeling this desire for them to succeed, the chances they’ll hear it in your words and believe it go up exponentially.

While compassion requires emotionally mature leadership, with the exception of firing an employee or sending your kid to the corner, it expresses itself quite often as mentoring (see above).

Creativity as the roundabout way to good ideas and innovation

There is one other similarity I notice between good leadership and good parenting. When we create the space for employees and children to be creative and play, it’s amazing what they can come up with. While play seems rather pointless at first glance — and messy — psychologists tell us that, in children and adults, creativity fires up unusual connections in the brain. When we play, we are able to make associations between unrelated things that deliver invaluable insights. At work, this looks like brainstorming, innovation and the occasional failure. At home, it looks like finger-painting, Lego robots and the girl/boy friend who doesn’t last long.

Learn how to be patient with the mess that results from play at the office and at home. Get down on your hands and knees and get a little lost in the game yourself sometimes. You, your kids, your employees and your business will all benefit.

What have I missed? Other similarities or differences we can all learn from? Speak your truth in comments below.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor  to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus  and on LinkedIn