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What parenthood taught me about being an empowering leader

6 min read


My second son just graduated high school and heads off to Virginia Tech next fall. He’s the last one out of the nest, and it’s got me thinking about the first half of my parenting life — the half where they are children. I’m grateful for so many things about being a parent, not the least of which is having two fine young men to show for it, but I’m also grateful for what they taught me about leadership.

I’d like to say that it was my worklife that taught me to be a good parent. After all, I was working for over a decade before I had kids. But looking back on it, I really wasn’t all that great a manager or leader in my 20’s and early 30’s. Putting “work” before “life” meant I was still trying to figure it all out on the job. I wanted to be a “cool” leader that everyone looked up to, but I failed as often as I succeeded. I felt too competitive with my staff; I overworked myself and resented my staff when they didn’t follow my lead.

Parenting was the force that made me grow up — at work and at home. Here are the two key lessons in leadership I owe to my kids.

Tough love is love

My oldest boy was 4 years old when he looked up at me one day and asked why I had to go away (on a trip or something). My heart didn’t break; it strengthened as I realized he had handed me a golden parenting moment. I knelt down and explained that we all had jobs. Mine was to be his mom and to work and help support our family. His was to play and learn. All of us had the job to be happy in whatever we were doing and to love each other when we were together and when we weren’t. He proudly went off to “his job” for the next several years (until he started taking tests in school, when “his job” got a lot less fun.)

Two weeks later, one of my staff complained about how little time I had to spend coaching her on something. For the first time as a manager, I was able to put my empathy and guilt in check. I gave her practically the same speech I’d given my child, helping her see that her job was to bring me her work as complete as she could make it. That’s when my coaching would be most useful to her and time-efficient for me. She didn’t like it in that moment, but her face glowed when she came back to present me a more complete work product than she’d ever accomplished on her own.

Integrity is my lifeboat

In the leadership biz, we talk a lot about integrity. It’s a good thing, but very few people — including me when I was younger — actually practiced it in the minutia of life. My kids taught me this was the easiest way to lose their respect and the fastest way to brew up a discipline problem. When my boys’ adolescence made “no” the most frequently used word in our parental vocabulary, the writing was on the wall for family war. So I reversed my policy and promised them I’d say “yes” whenever I could, and when I couldn’t, I’d explain why.

This led to a few inconveniently timed conference calls while taking them to soccer practice, and some late-night working sessions, but it led to many more conversations about priorities and responsibilities. The value I didn’t see until much later, however, was that by doing what I said I would do, they learned to trust that my deeds would be consistent with my words. They learned to think in terms of responsibilities and commitments to help balance their impulses.

In managing clients, vendors and staff, this same integrity in the details of life has made it possible for me to set expectations, draw boundaries and manage my own limited energy to get done what must get done while building trust at the same time.

There have been times over the past 20 years when I overworked and my husband was the children’s backstop. And there have been times when we switched it up and I’ve been home plate. In both scenarios, relying on ourselves and our network of colleagues and friends, we’ve always managed as a team to make sure that no kid ever went hungry, missed a sporting event, was left out on the curb waiting for pickup or felt unloved or uncared for. We’ve also managed never to miss an important deadline, drop the ball for a client or cancel work travel.

What made this possible was a long string of choices and negotiations — made in integrity — with each other, the kids and the people we work for and lead. These conversations acknowledge the realities that choices must be made and priorities set about what is most important at any point in time. We did what we said we would do and didn’t treat any choice as impossible. As a result, we always found a way, in the moment, to balance our priorities.

From the moment I watched my 4-year-old march off to “his job,” my whole view of working with other people changed. Today, as his brother marches off to college, he is marching off to his real job and I thrill in coaching him to help him make sense of the work-life lessons he is learning. In the process, I see the workplace anew and have a greater appreciation for what the millennial generation faces when they enter the workplace.

Thanks, guys. Because of you I am a better leader. How cool is that?

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.