The idea for this post came to me a few months ago during an executive coaching session with a client. I saved it until today, because it makes a nice preamble to Father’s Day coming up this weekend. During our discussion about becoming a better leader, my client reflected on his approach to fathering his children.
When his daughter, Rachel, was in 9th grade, she was a star player on the basketball team. One day, she told her coach that she wanted to play on the soccer team too. Her coach told Rachel that she couldn’t play both basketball and soccer. She wouldn’t have enough time to practice and be good enough for both teams. He told her that she needed to stick with basketball. Rachel thought about it for a minute, calmly told her coach that she chose soccer, and left her star spot on the team. The coach was infuriated by her answer. He called Rachel’s father to plead with him to talk some sense into her. Instead, her father said, “If that is Rachel’s decision, then she has my full support.”
My client knew his daughter. She was not making an emotional decision that she would quickly regret. She was making the kind of decision that he had groomed her and her siblings for since they were toddlers. It was a decision borne out of an accumulation of self-confidence and decision-making skills that were the foundation of his approach to fathership. He described his approach in three ways:
1. Meet them at their eye level. Towering over your children will only put them in a vulnerable and powerless position. Meet them at their eye level and let them know that they have your full attention. Being at their eye level also helps you empathize with their vantage point and perspective. The same applies to leadership. Regardless of your physical stature, your position on the org chart automatically gives you more power than those you lead. Instead of holding that power over their heads, show them that you are interested in seeing challenges and opportunities from their point of view.
2. Let them engage you into their world. If your son invites you to play trucks, play trucks. If your daughter wants to play chase in the yard, play chase. From dolls to dinosaurs — whatever world they are in — let your children know that you are ready and willing to let them create a safe space to play and begin to develop soft leadership skills. Nobody wants to be on a team where only the leader gets to be on the team, sets the agenda, makes up the rules as they go, then promptly breaks the rules themselves. Pass on the responsibility and accountability for agenda and rules setting to others on the team. It’s a fast track to learning both the hard and soft skills required to lead.
3. Help them build problem-solving skills. Life gets complicated at an early age. A parent’s job is not to clear their children’s paths of all obstacles. It’s to set boundaries of safety. Children should be given the freedom to navigate their own path within those boundaries. When the path looks unclear, and they come to you for help, ask, “What do you think you should do?” Don’t make the choice for them, but encourage them to explore their options. With time and repetition, they’ll grow to become accomplished problem solvers. It takes more time on the front end to let others explore choices and make mistakes that you could easily help them avoid. But, the investment of that time will yield long-term payoff – for your team member, for you, and for your organization.
Happy early Father’s Day to all the dads who are growing our next generation of leaders.
Question: What leadership lessons can you draw from fathers who were role models in your life?
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