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Parenting as leadership education


Effective leaders, like effective parents, aim to empower their charges, writes Kevin Philips. 

12th Feb 2020
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A parent’s most important task is to deliver into the world an adult human being who is able to survive and thrive on their own: to earn a living, to form stable relationships and to contribute to their community. Achieving the goal involves a couple of decades of sustained attention while granting children a gradual increase in independence and responsibilities in step with their growing capability. 

Although within much shorter timeframes (and minus the hugs and ball games), leading humans in the workplace is similar. Micromanaging bosses, like helicopter parents, do both themselves and their charges a disservice by failing to foster the development of accountability, responsibility and empowered action. 

It is, of course, never a good idea to treat employees like children – but understanding exactly what irks people about being treated like a child is a useful exercise. None of us, for example, enjoy being patronised, yelled at, or expected to follow instructions without question even when they seem stupid. More subtly, we don’t respond well when we feel that our abilities are being under-estimated, that our ideas are not being listened to, that our freedom is being unreasonably constrained or that we’re being denied information about matters that concern us. 

Oddly enough, children don’t enjoy being treated like this either. Most people can name at least one patronising, overbearing adult they loathed in their youth – that one who never listened and always assumed the worst. Those behaviours make for shoddy leadership in the workplace as well as in families and schools. 

Humans in general, whether children or adults, tend to thrive best in environments where they feel valued and supported, where they are appropriately challenged to develop their talents and abilities and where taking initiative and responsibility is rewarded. A young child who successfully navigates basic tasks like getting dressed and brushing teeth alone may be rewarded with increased freedom from close parental monitoring and nagging. For example, the teen who contributes their fair share to household chores might earn pocket money or extended freedoms. Responsibility and freedom advance hand in hand as we gain greater power to act in the world.

Taking on new challenges and responsibilities often involves failure, of course, and much depends on how parents and leaders respond to those failures. A child who blows an entire month’s pocket money in the first week needs doesn’t need to be shamed and punished, nor to be rescued. They need to be allowed to suffer the natural consequences of making a bad decision—and perhaps also to be taught some better budgeting skills. Failure, properly handled, can be a great motivator. Never being allowed to fail at all, on the other hand, is disabling. 

Well-led workplaces encourage and reward initiative, acknowledge that failures sometimes happen, and respond to failure by using the opportunity to help people learn and grow. In the workplace as in the family, learning through small, early failures help to avoid larger, catastrophic failures later on, when the responsibilities are larger and the stakes are higher. 

It helps if clear rules are established up front: stick to your budget, be polite, meet your targets, don’t run with sticks. Within a fair and transparent system of rules, it’s easier to distinguish between failures due to rule-breaking and failures due to honest overreach – and then to respond accordingly.

Becoming a mature and useful human being is a long process – in fact, if we do it right, growth and learning need never end. Business leaders who challenge, support and empower their employees, in the same way good parents challenge, support and empower their children, are likely to reap the rewards of excellence and loyalty.

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