What I Learned about Leadership from Parenting a Toddler
I will never forget this moment. I leave work a few minutes early to rush to daycare and pick up my then 13-month-old daughter to take her home where my mother is eagerly waiting for her. Because of massive flooding in their hometown, my parents (who desperately tried everything to get here) missed her first birthday party the month before. My mom quickly scheduled this visit to make up for the missed birthday, and even this trip she had trouble getting here. She was supposed to arrive Sunday, but due to mechanical issues with her flight, she didn’t get to my house until Monday afternoon. So, I had a bit of urgency to get my Lena home to see her KayKay. And this is the moment she chooses to exercise her newly found toddler independence for the first time. She’s happy enough to come with me to the car, but when the time comes to get in her car seat, she stands, arches her back, clenches her fists, and holds her breath to build up the scream - her face is bright red, she’s shaking her head frantically - “NO!” She will not get in the car seat.
I have to admit - I was flustered and more than a little irritated. It was about ten minutes later and at least three unsuccessful tries with the car seat before I just handed her my cell phone and forced her into the seat. Then, I had an epiphany: I am no longer simply keeping this tiny human alive; now, I have to parent her. I felt like I needed some help. My husband is a marriage and family therapist who does parent training all the time, and he’s generally pretty cool under pressure. All he needs is a general, big picture philosophy about raising her to be independent and emotionally intelligent. But, in the heat of the moment, I find I need something a little more concrete - the big picture is nice, but what do I say to her in the daycare parking lot? I know there’s a better way than bribing her with electronic devices.
So, I did a little research. The first toddler parenting book I read (No Bad Kids by Janet Lansbury) kept coming back to this analogy of a calm, respectful, and professional CEO - this is the tone she recommends for parents to take with toddlers who are misbehaving. She recommends imaging yourself as a CEO who is “effortlessly in charge” of the situation rather than uncertain, angry, or emotional. She kept saying that toddlers push limits because they need “gentle leadership” from their parents - to know that someone is in charge and taking care of them. I found this concept of the “gentle leader" very interesting and wondered what lessons we might pull from this parenting advice to make us better leaders in the workplace.
How to be a Gentle Leader
- Build trusting relationships.
- Clarify expectations early and often.
- Be respectful, honest, and clear in your communications.
- Be empathic by acknowledging the other person’s feelings and desires.
- Foster independence and encourage autonomy by asking questions or giving the person choices.
- Follow through.
- Believe in the other person’s ability to actively participate in creating solutions.
- Keep your cool - don’t yell, scold, or punish out of anger.
I can personally attest to the efficacy of this advice with my toddler. But, I also believe that these tips are beneficial in any leadership role and can help you handle difficult situations and create an environment where your team can thrive.
Also, snacks make everything better.