Parents represent the last stand of the amateur. Yet the very future of our world depends on the quality of their leadership.
As a health pandemic encircles the globe, literally billions of parents find themselves in lockdown with their children. Sure, the economic damage to jobs and family incomes is real. But with it comes a renewed appreciation for teachers, church workers, coaches and others who contribute to the care and upbringing of our children.
Still, parents everywhere are being reminded that the primary responsibility for parenting rests with, well, with parents.
Driving a car, building a shed in your backyard, or even selling cookies in your neighborhood requires some sort of official license or permit.
Not so with parenting. Yet in our rush-rush world it’s easy to regard parenting as something that requires less focus than, say, that PowerPoint presentation for next month’s strategic planning meeting.
As a wise man once said, “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
Are you a parent who feels overwhelmed by the demands of work, family and all the other priorities you need to juggle? If so, help is on the way in Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life.
The book’s subtitle may sound a bit ambitious. But authors Stewart D. Friedman and Alyssa F. Westring offer a robust—and realistic—approach to parenting with a greater sense of purpose and control.
Friedman is an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author bestselling books on leadership and life management. Westring teaches leadership at DePaul University with a focus on women’s careers.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What are some common assumptions (conscious or otherwise) that undermine parents’ success in giving their children the quality leadership they need?
Alyssa Westring: A lot of parents don’t see themselves as leaders. It’s so easy to get caught up in managing the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting that most parents haven’t taken a step back to explore their capacity to be leaders in all parts of their lives.
We find that parents often assume they know what others want and need from them. They’re operating on their beliefs about what their partner, children, boss, colleagues, and friends need. As a result, they’re not investing their time and energy in the things that really matter most.
By clarifying these expectations, parents can be more proactive and effective in how they engage with their children and others.
Duncan: In what ways does developing as a leader resemble growing as a parent?
Stew Friedman: Leadership is about mobilizing people toward valued goals, seeing the realities of today and envisioning a better tomorrow, for us.
Effective leaders know what matters and they seek to build trust and continually experiment with better ways to get things done. Working parents face these same leadership challenges as they strive to construct a strong foundation on which the next generation can stand.
Duncan: You suggest that clarifying personal values is a critical early step on the road to good parenting. Tell us more about the “why” and “how” of that value clarification—as an individual and as a parenting partner.
Westring: Values are the foundation upon which good leadership is built, whether in organizations or in parenting.
We’re constantly making decisions that affect our children—whether we take on a new role at work, how we discipline our children, how we divide chores with our parenting partner. If we aren’t clear on our values, those decisions might be made based on old habits, reactive fears, and false assumptions. But when we are clear on our values, we can use them as a guide to make proactive decisions that are aligned with our values and communicate them with our children and the other important people in our lives.
Duncan: Rather than struggle with constant trade-offs (and guilt trips) in life management, you recommend a “four-way win” approach. Exactly what is that, and how does it apply to the challenges of parenthood?
Friedman: The concept of “four-way wins,” which I first wrote about in Total Leadership, is a practical antidote to the inherently misguided quest for “balance” in the relationship between work and the rest of life. Instead of assuming that it’s always a zero-sum, win/lose proposition, we show people how to look for and actually pursue improvements in performance in all parts of life—work, family, community, and the private self (mind, body, spirit).
Our research shows that when you learn how to shift your focus and pursue realistic opportunities for positive impact in these four domains, then you’re much more likely to achieve them! The good news is that they are available to us all.
Duncan: What if two parents have different four-way views?
Alyssa Westring: It’s pretty much inevitable that two parents will have different four-way views—including how we think about the domains of their lives and how we choose to allocate our time and attention. But, this doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground. In fact, it can be a good thing because it allows you to bring your unique strengths and passions to parenting, as well.
By sharing our four-way view with our partner, we can look for opportunities where they are complementary. We can explore ways to emphasize shared values while also providing space for the unique values and approach of each parent. However, getting to this point isn’t easy…it can be frustrating to realize that your partner doesn’t share the exact same worldview as you. It can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. But, facing this reality is a lot better than ignoring it. And working together to honor your shared values and unique perspectives is a powerful lesson for your children, as well.
Duncan: Can you provide an example?
Westring: With one couple that we worked with, they each criticized the other’s approach to parenting. She thought he was too authoritative and had unrealistic expectations. He thought she was too permissive and was babying the children. When they dug deeper, they found the underlying issue was that he placed a high value on independence, whereas she placed a high value on nurturing. This allowed them to understand why each parent was adopting the approach that they were. They were able to move past accusations and blame and move towards new, creative approaches to parenting that allowed opportunities for both of their values to be expressed through their parenting.
Duncan: Tell us how to pursue four-way wins for the entire family.
Westring: Most people automatically default to thinking about trade-offs when considering ways to find greater harmony among the different parts of life.
For example, you might consider sacrificing some sleep to spend extra quality time with your children. You might consider taking on more of chores so that your partner can stay late to advance their career. But these trade-offs often do more harm than good.
Instead, we encourage people to seek out family four-way wins—new ways of doing things that are wins for us individually across the domains of our lives, and for our children, our partner in parenting, and the other people we care about most. This may sound impossible, but when people take the time to clarify their values and more deeply connect with those they care about, these creative family four-way wins tend to reveal themselves.
We encourage families to identify small, doable changes—things like having a weekly planning meeting for the family, spending time volunteering or exercising together, practicing digital downtime, or organizing a neighborhood potluck. By articulating the intended benefits of these experiments for all parts of life and then evaluating whether or not they work, families find that they are able to experience greater harmony, connection, and performance.
Duncan: When raising our children (especially when they were teenagers), my wife and I often reminded them that parenting involves a lot of on-the-job training. What are some good ways to engage children in the parenting journey?
Westring: Our decisions as parents often remain a mystery to our children. Whether explicitly or implicitly, a lot of parenting comes down to “because I said so.”
But there are opportunities to be more transparent in your decision-making process, especially when it comes to explaining how your shared values are influencing your choice. For example, rather than just saying you are going to miss an event because “you have to work,” explain the values that led you to make this choice. Is it for financial security, because your work helps others, because people are relying on you? This helps children learn to articulate the values driving their decisions, as well. If they are behaving in frustrating ways, ask them to articulate the values that underlie their decisions. For example, if they’re constantly on social media instead of doing their work, you could ask them to explain their reasons for that choice.
Duncan: Many parents are amazed to observe that multiple children from exactly the same gene pool can have widely different personalities and needs. How can parents best accommodate those differences while maintaining appropriate consistency in teaching things like values and behaviors?
Friedman: Let me respond to this by telling you about a saying often heard in our home when our children were young (my wife and I have been married for nearly 40 years and we have three children in their late 20’s and early 30’s). The saying was “everyone’s different.” It was a kind of a mantra we expressed to teach them that everyone has different needs and interests and that what we valued was celebration of these differences and an equitable—but certainly not equal—allocation of resources to each child. Fairness, not sameness, was and is the goal.
Duncan: What are some effective strategies for negotiating with a boss or other business colleagues on issues that impact one’s needs as a parent?
Friedman: The most important success factor in creating new ways of working that make you a better parent is to start with how any such change will demonstrably improve your performance at work.
When you approach your boss with an idea for change—let’s say you want to be off-line on Wednesdays from 4 PM onward—it’s useful to frame it as an experiment, as in “I believe this will result in my being less distracted and more energized and I’ll get better results in ways that you, dear boss, will appreciate. How about if we try this for a month or so and if things don’t get better, from your perspective, then we can stop, or try something else. OK?” In this approach, you’re not demanding a permanent (i.e., scary) change, and your goal is to produce better results. So it’s more likely you’ll get the green light than otherwise.
Duncan: How can grandparents make best use of the parenting and leadership approaches you teach?
Friedman: When we sent our book to various business leaders, scholars, and policy advocates for early reviews, every one of them who was of a certain age replied with something to this effect—“I wish I had this when I was just starting out as a parent. My kids, who are raising kids now, need this book!”
Of course, grandparents can be critically important in the lives of their children and grandchildren. And they are best positioned to have a positive impact if they put their own needs to the side and focus as much as they can on knowing how, from the perspective of their children, they can be of most value.
It starts, just as it does with parents, with knowing what you care about, why being a grandparent is important to you, and then actively inquiring of those around you as to what they need from you. Try new ways of doing things that serve others—your progeny, in this case—and see what you discover as you help to take those you love along with you to a better tomorrow.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.