5 Ways Parenting IS Leadership
If you’d asked me when I was in my late teens whether I wanted to have kids of my own, I would have looked at you like you’d randomly sprouted two heads.
Of course not, I would have said.
At the time, I had big dreams for myself: Travel places. Write a book. Live on a different continent in the world. Have a very important career. Do very important things. Change the world.
Having kids would stop me from pursuing those goals, obviously. In my young adult mind, parenting and pursuing those life goals were mutually exclusive. My fears were not totally unfounded. In the United States, discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is well documented. And while I’m Canadian, and there are generous maternity benefits and universal healthcare in this country, we are certainly not without our own issues. And pregnancy discrimination does persist.
All this is very unfortunate. Over the years, I have learned that parenting and career are not a zero-sum equation. It is possible to do both – and do both well.
I didn’t realize this before having kids, but there are also crucial leadership skills that you learn when in active duty as a parent. Let’s never underestimate or undervalue the skills learned in sleepless nights, diaper explosions, and the perpetual challenge and euphoria of raising little humans.
Whether you’re contemplating having kids, but worried you can’t have it all, or perhaps you’re a mom wondering if your career is going to stay dormant for all time and eternity, these reflections are for you.
Because parenting IS leadership. Here’s why.
1. Knowing What Really Matters
Parenting, for me, has helped me become crystal clear about what’s important and what’s not. For one, we just don’t have the free time we used to have. I think back on the six years my husband and I were married without children and wonder what we did with all our time. It seems like a luxury now.
Since having kids, I’ve become more ruthless deciding what’s worth my emotional energy and what isn’t. Silly arguments? Not worth my time. Schoolyard drama? Not interested. Whether our kids are in ten million activities that exhaust us and break the bank? Not a chance. Age-old family dysfunctions? Give me a break.
As a parent, I’ve come to learn the activities and relationships that are worth fighting for. My husband and I have had to drill down to the most important values and determine to live by them. (Your list may be different than mine, and that’s a good thing. Let’s cheer each other on not tear each other down for pursuing the deep values that are important to us.)
This also impacts my work. You’ll find me less likely to say yes to every project, so that I can give everything I have to the ones that matter.
Learning to make these important distinctions and choosing where to go after weighing it all out, that is true leadership.
2. Parents Have No Delusions Grandeur
Parenting is an exercise in humility. It’s hard, hard, hard, work. It’s a giant guessing game some days about what works and what doesn’t. And just when you think you’ve figured your kid out, they go ahead and surprise you.
When you’ve gotten to the frazzled and frayed end of your rope only to realize there is still more there (barely, perhaps, but still some), that’s when true character emerges.
Also, once you’ve touched poop with your actual unprotected hands and said poop explosion has happened in a very public place, any delusions of grandeur come crashing down.
Parenting is humbling, and humility is integral to great leadership.
3. Parents Learn to Focus by Letting Go
As we lumber along in our daily lives, we can easily get swallowed up by all the competing priorities. Nothing has helped me determine the most important things on my to-do list than the constant pressures involved in parenting.
If I am going to make things that are important to me happen in my life – co-parent small children, co-manage a household with my husband, succeed as a non-profit communicator, have meaningful relationships with friends and family, I’m going to have to have zero-in with laser focus to give them the time they deserve.
The peripheral stuff has got to go. This is where letting go comes into the picture. And it’s harder than it looks.
This is what John Acuff calls ‘Strategic Incompetence’ in his wonderful book “Finish”. It is simply impossible to be and do all the things. And that’s okay. Choose your priorities and then live them without apology or reservation.
When you come over to our house, you’ll immediately see the areas where we’ve chosen to be strategically incompetent…
In work, I’ve learned over the years how to achieve big goals and deadlines in a fraction of time simply by focusing in on what needs to be done now in the time I do have, and letting the other things go.
4. Parents Are Masters at Conflict Management
As a tried and true conflict avoider for most of my life, parenting has given me little place to hide. Each of my three daughters has firm opinions about the world and what they will or will not wear, eat, do (fill in the blank) on any given day.
I tell you, crucial conflict negotiation skills are gained when staring down a 3-year-old because she doesn’t want to wear pants…
Through parenting, I’ve grown as a conflict negotiator, because I simply cannot run away from it. I’m having to look below the surface of conflicts with my kids to understand what’s really going on. What is motivating behaviour with my children? What’s causing stress?
And that, apparently, is important for leaders. Emotional intelligence, the ability to know our own emotions, control them, and recognize them in others, is a key cog for effective leadership.
5. Parents Know Who They Are and What They (Really) Want
As the haze clears after the sleepless nights and the fog exits our brains as we emerge from the chaos of the preschool years, most of the parents in my life know who they are and how they want to live their lives.
They know what’s important.
They know what’s worth fighting for.
They know when to let things go and when something is worth it.
These people are great leaders because they have done the internal work of growth and transformation They have thoughtfully considered what is most important to them, and usually that’s creating a better world for their children and their broader community.
Oh, and they can get a bunch of stuff done on zero sleep, which is a superhero talent.