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What My Children Can Teach You About Leadership (Part 1)

Big lessons from small humans

An illustrative image for this article
Original photo by Marina Shatskih

I freaking love being a parent. Seriously.

I haven't found anything more rewarding than the failure-prone, sleep-depriving process of trying to mold the minds of little humans. Being on the receiving end of unconditional sure is quite a high. And I'm sure parents' genes wire them to think their kids are the cutest thing since the Big Bang.

But a big part of it is what little ones can teach us about life. And each other.

One unexpected area where I found plenty of lessons from my daughters is in leadership. Young children are such pure, unfiltered versions of humanity that they make so-called grown-ups easier to decode. You can see the mental and emotional processes happening in real-time (often loudly). And those are particularly noticeable in social contexts, even more so when involving power dynamics.

I'd love to share some of what my daughters have taught me so far, applied to work. So sit down, grab your sippy cup and let's talk about what my kids can teach you about leadership.

For motivation, focus on the why.

I can't count the times I've gotten upset that one of my kids isn't doing something – peeing before leaving, changing their clothes, getting into the car. Even when it's for their own good! Say, to go to the playground, or not to catch a cold, or eat the food of the gods, pizza.

And every time I have to remind myself: they don't know why I'm asking them to do this. While this man in his thirties finds the need for shoes obvious to go a restaurant, that's not quite an obvious connection to make for a toddler. But when I explain the reasoning behind my request, things tend to flow a lot easier.

As leaders, we often forget that we're privy to a lot more context than folks on our teams may be. Leaders are in different meetings, reading different documents, and usually are able to see more of the big picture. That information gap can make requests we make or guidance we provide a bit opaque, sometimes even seem contradictory. So always remember to walk back through the chain of reasons which led to whatever project/process/change/etc you're putting forth, as you're much more likely not only to get motivated folks, but often better ideas to achieve those goals than you could have thought of yourself.

Oh: keep in mind adults can be much better at seeing through bullshit than little kids, so you better have some solid reasons at hand, alright?

Add a new person, get a new team.

I have a tattoo on my right arm which I got after my first child was born to remind me that, in a family, partners have to work hard to ensure they continue to have a relationship between themselves, irrespective of being parents. I had seen many couples lose their connection once a baby appeared on the scene, and wanted to avoid it. Which I believe we have.

What I didn't realize was how much the arrival of our second kid changed the dynamics between the three of us. The ways I relate to my wife and my first child are now entirely different, we're a new family in many ways.

That experience highlighted for me at work how the addition of a new person to a team completely changes that team's dynamics. When a team of five grows by one, the number of connections grows by five. This made me more disciplined in checking in with every member of my team when I on-boarded someone new and in observing the dynamics between everyone, not just the ones involving the new person.

Want great behavior? Model it yourself.

I thought I knew how much kids were little sponges. But seeing my accent from Rio de Janeiro in my kid's speech, who's been growing up entirely in the US, drove it home. But what really hit me was seeing her engage in bad behavior which was clearly modeled after my own bad examples.

On the other hand, I eat broccoli quite voraciously, and so does she. I kid you not, one day she refused to eat a quesadilla, asking for broccoli instead. Parenting award anyone?

Joking aside, it's easy to see how much kids will copy our behavior. But that's something all humans do. In every group, the leaders' behavior is mimicked throughout, consciously or otherwise. So as a leader, if you want your team to engage in some sort of positive way of working – providing feedback, consulting other groups, being inclusive and empathetic towards different backgrounds and lifestyles, not interrupting others, promoting accountability without blame – you gotta lead by example.

Be mindful of people's individuality.

Siblings can share 50% of their DNA (100% in the case of some twins) and still be such different people. It's blown my mind how two humans born in almost the exact same environment, raised by the same parents, with the same values, can be so diverse. It leads to significant challenges in how to deal with siblings with fairness, while still engaging with them in a way with speaks to their own unique personalities.

Isn't that one of the biggest challenges in people management? Being fair and consistent in how you evaluate the work and behavior of people in your team, while still honoring what makes each of them unique? How to encourage proactivity without only rewarding extroversion. How to praise thoroughness in some contexts, while encouraging the breaking of rules in others.

I like to think that the constant reminder at home of the myriad ways in apparently similar people can be very different and care about entirely different things has made me a much better manager. Any expectations of people fitting a certain mold have been shattered.

Growth happens through freedom within clear bounds.

A parenting device which we always try to use at home is the French notion of cadre¹, or frame. In a nutshell, it means establishing very clear limits for your kids, but giving them complete freedom within those limits. A simple example is a safe playroom – "for the next 30 minutes you can do whatever you want, but you gotta stay in this room". Or a box full of washable markers – "you can't use any pens, but you can use these markers in any way you want."

This gives kids the confidence and respect to explore and discover. It allows caregivers to establish simple guidance and avoid constant corrections and nos. All because they're need to be thoughtful and responsible in creating a safe environment with clear limits.

I've found that a lot of confusion and frustration at work comes from the lack of a cadre. The lack of shared understanding of limits within which someone is expected to operate, combined with an expectation that they do creative, innovative work.

In practice, this has taught me to be very clear with folks on my teams about what's expected of them and what constraints there may be around their work – budget, timing, dependencies, including others, adherence to a general direction – while also encouraging them to explore a lot of different paths and possibilities within that space. And, of course, over time the constraints can change, be re-evaluated and negotiated. Especially as great work is done within those boundaries or, in other words, through growth.

To keep your sanity, keep the long arc in mind.

As any parent knows, the day-to-day is hard. Sometimes brutal. The diapers are endless. Sleep seems like an eternal struggle. But as the months and years go by, we start to see that a lot of these difficulties are phases. You don't potty train forever. At some point they do put on their shoes with no complaints. That is obviously not the entirety of it – there are plenty of permanent challenges which parents can face – but kids grow and change so fast and so often that time can sometimes ease a lot of our tensions and frustrations on its own.

And this may have been the lesson from my kids that has most affected me at work: having the calm, patience and resilience to persevere through challenges. Since becoming a parent, I've seen few problems to solve at work which feel as hard or consequential as the raising of self-aware, empathetic, thoughtful adults.

That contrast has given me a level of steadiness and confidence which I know I lacked when I was younger, and something I'm impossibly grateful for.

One last thing

The main daily learning I continue to get from my daughters is presence.

Every. Single. Day.

Young kids' ability to live in the present, to not get anxious about the future or to hold grudges about the past is nothing short of remarkable. Their way of making you feel like there's nothing else worth happening in the universe is soul-warming. We somehow lose that level of natural mindfulness over time, and that's something I'm always trying to recover – at work, with others, with myself.

We "adults" have a lot to learn from them still.

Big thanks to my wife, Taís, for reviewing a draft of this piece, for being a partner in seeing a lot of these lessons and for giving me the best family I could ever hope for.

1 I learned about the cadre in Bringing Up Bébé, a highlight in my bookshelf.