I have been a parent for approximately 11 days, so I am clearly not an expert in this field. This is the ultimate learn-as-you-go job, where something that worked one day may or may not work the next. What seems logical and rational may not cut it. I have been in leadership and people consulting for more than 10 years, though, so I have a slightly higher level of expertise and experience in this realm (obviously I'm still learning here as well).
However, even in just the first week of being a new dad, I was struck by some of the principles of parenting that meshed with what makes leaders stand out. Let me preface all of this by saying that the brilliant, talented employees who make up your organizations are by no means children or infants. They're highly capable leaders themselves, who are simply looking to you for clarity, guidance and support. My baby obviously needs far more than those things, though I would say she's highly advanced already...but that could be a biased opinion.
So what can we take from the realm of feeding, changing and bouncing a baby to make you a better leader?
- Your needs come second--The brilliant leadership guru Simon Sinek says that "Leaders eat last" and this principle could not be more true than when caring for an infant. Are you hungry and haven't eaten anything more than a granola bar in 6 hours? Tough, your baby needs to eat. Leaders recognize the needs of their employees first, help them overcome those needs and then take care of themselves. This is servant leadership at its best, and it's a method of leadership that's been proven by top leaders and organizations.
- Things change, so be adaptable--When my new daughter was crying on day 3, I bounced with her on an exercise ball and to my amazement, it immediately pacified her. She was mesmerized and then eventually fell asleep. It was like a Eureka! moment...until it wasn't. The next day, I tried the same tactic with decidedly less successful results. Things change all the time so, as a leader, you can't be reliant on what you did previously to solve the complex challenges that your work requires. Start out by doing what worked, but if that isn't working this time, be prepared to change course.
- Set the right tone--As parents we've been very cognizant of creating an atmosphere that mirrors what we want our lives to look like. And it's worked (so far). During the day, when we're awake, we speak in our regular voices, play music, run the dishwasher and vacuum, and the baby has responded. If she's tired, she sleeps right through it and if she's awake, she wants to be part of the action. At night, we speak soothingly and softly and turn down the lights, even if she's wide awake. As a leader, your job is to set the tone. You are the thermostat for the room's climate. Even if things are stressful (like they are for us as parents in the middle of the night when we can't sleep) if your employees see that stress, they'll get stressed too. If you're constantly projecting an air of concern or franticness, your employees will see that immediately. The situation may be tough, but you've got to know how to manage it.
- Congratulate the little things--As I said, my baby is highly advanced and no doubt smarter than any other 11-day old out there. Fortunately for (hopefully) every baby, their fathers think the same thing about them. On a practical level though, I am truly amazed by the little things that my child has done--laying on her stomach and turning her head; touching a little toy; even opening her eyes wide. All of these things are tiny victories for an infant, and my wife and I gush over them. Leaders should be doing the same things for employees. I'm not talking about an "everyone gets a trophy" false praise for sending an email, but research has shown that a little recognition for even small victories (like leading a productive meeting, diffusing a potential conflict, or handling a tough customer complaint) makes employees more engaged and more willing to go the extra mile in the future. Remember though, everyone likes to receive praise in different ways, so tailor your approach to what works best for your employees.
- Lead with Love--I couldn't have told you this two weeks ago, but I can say it unequivocally now...being a parent is love. Pure and simple. I am so emotionally connected to my baby that I find it hard to think about doing it any other way. Her needs are my needs and my first thought is how I can make her better. I am literally thinking of what I can do now to make her smarter and happier when she's 25. Business is hard and so is parenting, and I'm not advocating some wimpy, soft approach to work. However, much like the emotional, love-connection you have with a child, leaders can exhibit that same level of emotional connectivity. As stated in this Forbes article, "Leaders at all levels in every organization can take performance to new levels by putting love into their toolkits." That's how to truly inspire your workforce, by transcending typical leadership practices and going to deeper levels of connection.
I'll keep you posted on how these principles work as we go from infant to toddler to child, but I'm betting they will hold true (and that my little girl will continue to be the smartest, most beautiful child in the world).