Many of you know that I spent almost eight years in the Army. Generally speaking, everyone in the Army has an opportunity to work their way up into a position leading troops. From the very first day of basic training, you are schooled on the first lesson of how to be a good leader: followership. As the months and years progress you are exposed to more leadership lessons, though reading, formal instruction, and practical experience. As you progress, and if you're doing well, you end up getting additional help and opportunity - it's almost as if you are identified early on as a potential leader and are given the training and experiences you need to be able to lead effectively.
Most people who haven't served have a perception that military leadership is all about yelling and screaming, making young kids shine boots and do pushups as they cower before your mightiness - in other words, that military leadership is about coercion and intimidation. This is certainly true in some cases, but any parent knows that intimidation and coercion - in addition to just being plain ineffective - often yields the complete opposite behavior than the one desired.
I had the chance to learn from some amazing leaders, and to read inspirational stories about Joshua Chamberlain and Aubrey Newman and David Hackworth - leaders who lead from the front, and who never asked anything of their soldiers that they would not do themselves. I got a chance to learn that the fundamental job of a small group leader in combat is to keep his or her troops safe and accomplish the mission. To do this requires leadership that inspires and motivates people to follow you without question or hesitation. Under the stress of training for combat, when chaos and fear reign, a good leader is able to look their troops in the eye, say "follow me!", and get them to do it.
But good leaders - GREAT leaders - never have to tell anyone that they are in charge. They teach, they inspire, they motivate . . . but it is never, EVER, about them. In his book on business leadership, "Good to Great", Jim Collins argues that the best leaders in the corporate world have the same attributes: they lead from the front, they question, they are curious, they teach, they coach, and all of that creates a persona which inspires and motivates the people around them. But they are, above all, humble about it. Not only is there no need for them to tell people that they are in charge - they don't actually view themselves as being in charge. Surely, they have decisions to make and responsibilities to bear that are different from the other people on their teams. But they view themselves as a beneficiary of a culture that is created equally by all parties. This builds significant trust and credibility. Collins refers to these people as "Level 5 Leaders."
As I sit here in a crowded New York airport, I cannot help but see the parallels between leadership and parenting. Here's what I see and hear:
"3 . . .2 . . .1 . . .you're in a time out, mister!"
"Joey, I told you to sit the hell down, so DO IT!"
"Why can't you just sit there and be quiet?"
"What is the matter with you?"
"I don't care if you're hungry. You didn't eat the muffin I got you, and that's all you're getting."
"Did I or did I not tell you stop?!?!"
Wow . . . I mean, wow. I wish this were uncommon, but of course it isn't. Somewhere along the way, many parents have just gone crazy. Why? I don't know. Could be because being a parent is hard. Maybe they are flying out to Omaha for a funeral. Maybe they just lost their job, or something difficult happened on the way to the airport. It could be a thousand things, I guess. And if these were all isolated incidents, if the parent (who is only human, after all) caught themselves, or apologized, or gave a hug or something, then maybe it would be easier for to understand and overlook. But none of that is happening around me right now, and overall I see far more of it than I need or want to. And after giving it some thought, I think it comes down to expectations and entitlement.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog on expectations because I needed to think through my own expectations - of myself as a parent and partner, of my wife, and of my children. In short, I think expectations can be dangerous because they set a visual image for us of how something "should" be, which only gets more detailed over time, and which becomes so alluring to us that we get single-mindedly focused on pursuing it. And in that pursuit, we often miss amazing opportunities to pursue other things that might be even more satisfying. And of course, the reality of our vision is rarely as we originally envisioned it, and so we can become disillusioned and disappointed.
I think parents, for whatever reason, expect that parenting is going to be pretty easy. Oh, they know that having a baby can be hard, and that teenagers can run a little wild, but overall I think they start with a fundamental expectation that it will be fairly simple and in control. And when they find that parenting isn't really like that, they do what many people do - they try to hold on tighter to that which is becoming elusive, like a mountain climber grabs a rope hard when she begins to slip. But grabbing the rope too hard can be fatiguing, so if that is all they do they are bound to slip further down eventually. Kids are the same way, I think. The more you try to control, the harder it becomes. A parent may start with reason ("You should not do that because . . . ), graduate to guilt (Mommy really wishes you wouldn't . . . "), and move swiftly to coercion ("If you stop, I'll give you a . . . "). And if that doesn't work, they may move straight to fear and intimidation ("Dammit, I TOLD you . . . !!")
In short, they are trying to be a "follow me" leader without the "follow me" credibility. Why? Because they think that they are entitled to respect and obedience. I mean after all, they are in charge; they make the money; they provide the roof, and the food, and the toys, and the clothes; they do the driving, and the cleaning, and make all the hard decisions. Doesn't that mean that they are entitled to be respected for their abilities and sacrifices?
Absolutely not. Just because they had sex without a condom, or whatever, doesn't mean they are entitled to anything except their name on a birth certificate and a tax deduction. Seriously - that's it. Nothing else. A parent is not entitled to love, or respect, or obedience, or friendliness, or concern, or anything else.
A parent, like a leader in a company or in the Army, has to earn those things - without ever being attached to whether or not they receive them, or when, or how. They have to be willing to do as artisans had to do hundreds of years ago when building cathedrals. They have to trust that they may never see the ultimate benefit of their work, but to still have confidence that their work had meaning and that the quality of their work was critical to the overall beauty of the end product.
So a parent has to be a "Level 5" leader . . . to earn the privilege of connecting with their children by coaching, and loving, and respecting, and believing, and inspiring, and motivating . . . but with a humility and grace that inspires confidence and trust, and earns credibility with their partner and their children. They have to recognize the fault in their expectation that a child should listen to and respect the parent because they are a parent, instead of because of what kind of parent they are. They must recognize and embody what every good leaders knows instinctively - that trust and credibility with your children must be earned, in every action and word.