Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, you have to give Barack Obama one thing: He certainly seems to have family life figured out. His marriage appears enviable, his personal life drama free, and his daughters look to be on the path to success.
Like all parents, the ex-President and his wife surely made plenty of mistakes with their daughters, but in general he's a guy I'd take parenting advice from. Interestingly, he recently offered some while speaking to data analysis company Splunk.
Not only will it make you better parent, it will also make you a better leader. according to the latest insights from psychology.
You can't turn a rose bush into an oak tree
To explain the insight he gained from watching his two daughters grow up, Obama turned to a botanical metaphor, Business Insider reports.
"They're a bamboo or they're an oak or they're a chestnut. They all need water, sunlight, some TLC, but how they grow and what pace, when the branches sprout, when they flower at any given time, it's just different. And so, our daughters were different, and as they got older, they became identifiable," he told the audience.
And just as different varieties of plants need different types of nurturing, different types of people need to be looked after differently too.
"What that meant was, in parenting, the idea that you do the exact same thing with each child the same way actually doesn't make sense. There has to be equity and fairness in terms of wanting them to get to the same outcomes, but we had to take sort of different strategies with our girls on certain things," he continued.
It doesn't seem radical to suggest that each child is unique and you should adjust your approach to accommodate their character and needs. But in today's world of helicopter parents, the point needs to be made not just that kids vary, but that parents can't--and shouldn't try to--shove their children into their particular mold for success.
Obama's not the only one using gardening metaphors to make this case. So does UC Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter. In it, Gopnik argues that many parents view themselves as carpenters, chiseling and sanding away at the raw material of their children to create whatever outcome they want. In this view, enough extracurriculars and SAT prep classes will shape your child into your vision of a successful adult.
But kids aren't raw material, Gopnik points out, referencing the latest research in her field. They're born with their own capacities and characters. You can't turn a rose into an oak tree, any more than afterschool theater will turn your little introvert into a spotlight stealer.
A better way to view the whole project of parenting, according to Gopnik and apparently Obama, is to think of your child as a plant. Your job is to provide the best conditions to help that particular plant grow and flower. Shower them in love, guide them as best you can, but don't think you can change (or create) who they are. That's just a recipe for misery for everyone involved.
A lesson for leaders as well as parents
All of which suggests that Obama is dispensing pretty good advice to parents here (and also that the former bookworm-in-chief may have read Gopnik's book), but Obama takes the idea a step further, insisting the gardener mentality isn't just best for parents but for bosses, too.
This parenting lesson is "actually a good leadership lesson," too, he claimed. "What I found with my staff is, there's some people where I could be more blunt with, and some people, I have to be a little more, what do the girls call it, 'compliment sandwiches,' trying to wrap it around the criticism where you're like, 'You're wonderful. That was a terrible memo. I love you.' There's a little bit of that."
Management experts might disagree with Obama about the effectiveness of the "s**t sandwich" feedback technique specifically, but the larger point holds. Your role as a leader, just like your role as a parent, isn't to shove people into whatever idea of "best practices" you've got in your head. What's "best" often depends on whom you're dealing with.
The best leaders, like the best parents, know they need to cultivate the people they have, rather than try to force them to become something they're not.