It took me longer than most to decide that I wanted kids. I was 48 when my first was born, so I’d already been in leadership roles for about 20 years. At the time, Before Kids (BK), I thought I was a pretty good leader. You might even get a couple of my former employees to admit it.
Fast forward to the present and I now have two boys. Tag is 4 and Kade is 2. I’m proud to say that I am now a much better leader After Kids (AK). But I’m also embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was BK! Granted, some of the improvement is due to the experience that naturally comes with age, but becoming a parent is one of those life-changing experiences that simply counts more than others.
Here are three ways my kids have helped me become a better leader.
I have more humility
My kids have sneezed, barfed, peed and pooped on me more times than I can count. They throw fits, leave toys everywhere, and dramatically lower the value of cars. And yet I feed and clothe them, pay for music and gymnastics classes, and shuttle them to parties and doctor’s appointments. I couldn’t fathom any of this five years ago, but today I just think it comes with the territory. It’s not about me anymore, and that’s okay. They are my reward. I embrace putting the kids’ needs ahead of mine because it’s part of what makes a good parent.
I think I’ve been pretty good about taking care of my employees. I “go to bat” for employees that have earned better-than-average salary increases, prioritize investments in employees for training and professional growth, and advocate for tuition assistance and 401K matching. I’ve worked longer hours, taken pay cuts during lean times, and used my time and money to help employees and their families in times of crisis. My ego is securely in the back seat. I embrace putting the employees’ needs ahead of mine because it’s part of what makes a good leader.
I admit when I need help
For most of my life, I was one of those fiercely independent types that insisted on doing things alone even when it was clear that I was struggling. I dismissed the idea of getting help as weak. It worked, to a degree. I have very little fear of tackling things myself, of teaching myself how to do almost anything, of working harder or longer until I get it right.
But parenting isn’t one of those things you “get right” simply by working harder or longer. Anyone who has had a child knows that parenting just sort of crashes into you like a heavy rain. You don’t get to experience it one drop at a time. You are immediately overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of drops and then dismayed at the realization that it will continue raining for the next 18 years. Make that 25 years.
My wife and I work together on dozens of things that BK I would have done alone – meal planning, scheduling, car pooling, cleaning, shopping, etc. Honestly, the kids are getting a better life because my wife and I make better decisions as a team than we might as individuals (total respect and awe for any single parents that might be reading this). More importantly, we are dividing and conquering to make efficient use of our time. Neither of us can do it all, not with full-time jobs, non-profit volunteer work, involvement in the school parent guild, round-robin illnesses, and so on. I have a new appreciation for grandmas too!
Being a parent helped me turn the corner from “I can do it all myself” to “I can do it better with some help.” I think I had a tendency in my early leadership experiences to work overly independently. Today, I’m more likely to seek out others and collaborate toward a better result.
I am more enthusiastic
Blog followers may recall my earlier post about Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. When asked about how he approaches his job he said, “I’m going to attack the day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” His unique brand of enthusiasm was contagious and the team pulled off one of the great turnarounds in Michigan football history.
Kids have a unique brand of enthusiasm as well. They remind us what it feels like to be surprised and delighted when opening gifts, to be genuinely happy to see you come home, and to have fun while playing with others. When I see this I can’t help but smile. The warm and fuzzy feeling carries me for days, helping me approach life with a positive attitude.
As a leader, I understand better now AK that my enthusiasm (or lack thereof) has a ripple effect on my team. I can show up for work grumbling about my commute or I can greet people with a smile. I can sit in my office reading Gartner reports or I can help people problem-solve one-on-one. I can take part in bitch sessions or I can go fix the things people are bitching about. I want to approach my job with a certain energy and zest because I know that if my staff does the same, good things are going to happen.
A leader learns from everything
In writing this post, I had no trouble coming up with ideas. I’m a better time manager because parenthood teaches you to work in the time slices that your kids allow you to have. I’m talking about the 10 minutes in the morning when I’m awake but my kids are not. The five minutes standing in the restaurant bathroom waiting for a kid to poop. I’m more patient because parenthood teaches you new limits of patience. I’m talking about how I have to ask my kids to put their shoes on at least a dozen times. Each. Every morning. But they will do it instantly for grandma.
It led me to the realization that a good leader learns from everything. All the time. Good leaders are perpetually open to learning. It requires a sense of humility strong enough to temper the confidence that comes from experience. No matter how skilled, no matter the list of achievements – the best leaders know there is always an opportunity to learn more.