What Parenthood has taught me about Leadership

As of late, I have been focusing on being present for my sixteen-year-old teenager son. I have been learning from his adventurous spirit and energetic disposition. What would the world look like without adolescents? Indeed, Daniel J. Siegel, author of ‘Brainstorm: The Purpose and Power of the Teenage Brain’, reminds us of how much we can learn from the teenager’s creativity. He writes: ‘When adults lose the creative power of the adolescent mind, their lives can lose vitality and become meaningless.

As I often feel consumed by my role as a mother. ‘Am I messing up? Have I got it all wrong? Am I parenting with selfish motives?’, I often ask myself. I challenge myself to draw some lessons from my most difficult moments. I thus see parallels between parenting and leadership: what has parenting got to do with managing the self, leading the self and leading teams?

Here are the 12 main things I am grasping from my journey of motherhood:

  1. Commit to their development, no matter what, and even if: no matter what happens, as parents, we are there to provide a solid foundation of love and support for our children. Love is not a commodity we take away from them when they apparently commit acts of mischief, or don’t act according to our expectations. That would be acting in a manipulative manner, in my opinion. When we transmit this intention to our children, they learn that they can learn from their oversights and mistakes, every single time.
  2. Discover the unique human being that is evolving in front of you: the temptation of fixing one’s child, and addressing their limitations is always there. What if instead, we are there to discover the gem that is in them? What if our role is to allow their strengths to emerge? Our default thinking, our intention makes a difference, and our child can sense it.
  3. Have agreements, principles, boundaries and non-negotiables in place: rules are restrictive, stifling, and the first temptation for a young one is to break them. On the other hand, principles and boundaries are guidelines that we can agree on together. For instance: what agreements can we reach to keep the house tidy, to use the cell phone wisely, how to entertain friends well during a birthday party, without trashing the house?. Co-creating such principles will generate ownership of them. At the same time, as our teenagers push for being independent, as parents we can put in place non-negotiables, for which there will be zero tolerance towards. For example: no tolerance for disrespect, for marginalizing others, for use of harmful substances, and so on.
  4. Stay engaged, and seek dialogue: this may not happen in every family, but I notice that many adolescents seek to have space for themselves, which may lead to them isolating themselves physically from the rest of the family. And as they develop their own persona, they become combative in arguments they wish to win, leading to heated discussions. As parents, we can encourage engagement in a non-intrusive manner – remind our young ones of the value of being together, even though their instinct as they grow is to push us away. And in discussions in which the aim of ‘winning’ may prevail, keep on encouraging ‘dialogue’ instead, as ‘the art of making meaning together.’ In those instances of heated debate, the greatest temptation is to speak over my son, and I remind myself of the healing power of proactive listening.
  5. Back off, and ask coaching questions: our young adults don’t have us parents as their reference point anymore. Any intended act of guidance and follow-up from our end may be interpreted as stifling control. As adults, we need to back off and give them room to take decisions and explore. We are not there to be prescriptive and give instructions. The role of the coach may be more helpful: that of a thinking partner who makes them reflect, and enables them to learn. For example, if we see them using their time inappropriately on the phone, when they have a test the next day, we can ask: ‘Will what you are doing now help you in your test tomorrow?’ Or if they come up to us wishing to solve an issue, rather than giving advice, our coaching question could be: ‘What options are there to solve this challenge? What do you think?’ With my son, I am learning that this could support him in developing his problem-solving skills.
  6. Be curious when strong emotions are enacted: when our young one expresses swinging emotions, and strong ones, such as anger and frustration, we can dig deep and ask ourselves: what is the unmet need? I catch myself becoming irritated with what I witness. I forget that my teenager’s brain (especially the decision-making, reflective part, the neo-cortex), is still developing, so he may express anger, when in reality, he may want to articulate something else. A gentle inquiry, and a curiosity mode from myself, may help in the exploration.
  7. Trust your intuition: our gut instinct can guide us when what we see and what we hear from our adolescents is not enough. As parents, I am realizing, we need to trust our intuition: is there something they are not telling us? Is there something that has been undisclosed? Is our child not telling us about a disappointment experienced, a failed test, an experience of bullying or peer pressure, of something they have in their school bag that they are hiding from us? I am learning to learn that deeper instinct, and my son is surprised about what I learn every single time.
  8. We can’t rescue our children all the time: I catch myself being protective of my boy, wanting him to avoid painful experiences in life. But in reality, that wouldn’t help him grow at all. As dear friend Pretty recently said to me: ‘Life has many ways of teaching us valuable lessons. We teach our kids to make responsible decisions in their journey of life; we try to be there for them to learn.’ So a valuable lesson for our young ones is that there are natural consequences for our actions. If they don’t study in advance for a test, and the results are not great, there is no need to exclaim: ‘I said so!’ the natural consequences speak for themselves.
  9. Work on the self: working on the self may include processing our own thoughts, aspirations, expectations, worries and other emotions. As adults, we have unfinished work that we unfairly project on the next generation: perhaps, in our childhood we failed to excel in a subject and we force our teenagers to secure the best grade in the same one; we didn’t win at tennis tournaments and expect them to do so now, even if they are not interested to do so; we dream of them becoming doctors because we didn’t manage to ourselves. Our children have an agency of their own, and can’t be our unfinished project.

In addition, working on ourselves may include working on our anxieties. If we are exhausted, it’s our responsibility to practice our self-care. If we feel overwhelmed, let’s let go and start afresh, before our young ones pick up our anxieties. They deserve to experience our calm, not our agitation.

  1. Innovate, and don’t just be a guardian of past values: As parents, my husband and I have often caught ourselves wanting to be guardians of family values, so as to pass them over to the younger generation. We value hard work, truthfulness, planning, service to others, and so much more. It took us time to embrace our son’s seemingly opposing values of spontaneity and fame, until we realized what great catalysts for innovation they can be. Enabling him to express them can only enrich our family system. Our values as parents should not stifle the newness our children offer.
  2. Work with a counselor: any system requires external support to grow, whether it’s a counselor, therapist or coach. When feeling a bit disoriented in our journey as parents, a counselor can be a thinking partner who can give feedback and new perspectives on dilemmas we are experiencing. I sense that in our context seeking help is seen as a source of weakness, while instead, being this vulnerable could actually be our source of strength, and help us to evolve.
  3. Our environment matters: while responding to different challenges, I noticed how much energy I was expending on inspiring shifts in thinking and action in my son, especially when he seemed to be encountering unsafe situations. Despite many efforts, I would often not experience any positive change, until I realized how the environment we are immersed in, matters. Our ‘physical container’, the places we frequent, the friends we have, and the social media programmes we follow have a huge impact on our psyche and decision-making, especially during teenager hood, when the shift of attention moves from one’s parents, to the external environment, and peers. As parents we can support our children to reflect on what positively, or negatively, influences them.

As I reflect on the joys and excitement of parenthood, I am grateful to experience the creative force I see in my son. As Siegel reminds us, the energy of teenagers can be harnessed in an exciting way. Indeed, ‘with awareness, the power of the adolescent mind can be utilized to benefit oneself and others. It is the constructive side that has led to so many innovations that have transformed our modern world in art, in technology, in music. This period of the teenage years and early twenties is a time of great potential and of great constructive power. The push against traditional ways of doing things and of thinking about reality can yield ways of thinking outside the box that enable new and creative ways of doing things to emerge.’

The above quote strikes me, because I see parallels to my favourite definition of leadership, this being ‘a way of thinking, speaking and acting in a way that mobilizes the self and others to effective action, for the creation of a better future for all.’ I am thus realizing that the skills of a parent are the skills required to be valuable members of teams, and leaders. I am thrilled by this realization: that as I focus on what I believe is one of the most important jobs in the world, being a mother, I am growing as a leader. I feel  the thrill of raising another gorgeous human being, and the honour of contributing to teams contributing to national agendas.

I would appreciate to learn about your own experiences in raising or looking after children/ teenagers.

As I celebrate this process, I am eternally thankful to my son and husband for the companionship in family. To loving grandarents, whose loving presence have always made a difference. I am grateful to great friends, such as Hanan Abdulmalik, Konjit Yimer and Pretty Mehta for their listening ear and wisdom, and to counselors and healers such as Anja Terlouw, Maskarm Haile, and Zahara Legesse, for their professional input. Reading and following the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Shefali Tsabari and Dr. Gabor Mate has been very valuable to me too.

From Nadia Waber (mother, Leadership Development practitioner, and member of the AWiB Strategic Leadership Team (SLT))