The Surprising Secret That Parenting Teaches Us About Leadership

When you’re a parent you’ll have noticed how easily the world can fall apart for children when they experience problems. If you ‘re a kid and you fail a test at school, it is a big deal. It feels like your whole world is crashing down around you. Over-identifying with problems can develop negative worries or fears. And we can, and do, carry these anxieties into our adult lives. As a result, when it comes to digital transformation — the requirement to profoundly transform your business, even if it is in a strategic and carefully prioritised fashion — fear can impact your ability to lead with courage and optimism.

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Recent research by workforce consulting firm, Life Meets Work, clearly shows that the stress of leaders in companies ripples throughout the entire organisation, affecting everything within a business from how employees engage, to the bottom line. Moreso, research shows that employees will actively leave work environments where leaders don’t manage their stress and/or fear.

In a world where the only real certainty is change and uncertainty, it becomes hard to lead with optimism.

However, the research I’m processing as a Future Fit guide shows that optimism is a key trait of not just successful Future Fit leaders, but all leaders. Gallup research done at the University of Pennsylvania clearly reveals that optimistic leaders drive dramatic workplace results. Leaders who are hopeful [read optimistic] encourage productive employees to reach their goals. What this research shows is that optimism is causal to helping employees reach goals and be more productive.

The bottom line? Optimists who create a shared vision give their teams a reason to stretch and achieve that vision.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let me share my own experience of optimism and leadership — a social experiment I experienced over the holidays. I live in South Africa, but my family is all based in the UK, so holidays are a great chance for my two young boys (8 and 3 years old) and their cousins to connect, and it pretty much becomes a 24/7 play fest. (Obviously with small gaps in-between, so that said children can relieve their grandparents of significant amounts of chocolate!)

In a world where the only real certainty is change and uncertainty, it becomes hard to lead with optimism.

Watching the children play, I noticed that arguments often erupted around the rules of a game. One child plays a game in a specific way while another becomes adamant that the game should be played differently. The clash of wills realises a fight, and the gameplay deteriorates dramatically. Once the fighting starts, the play is all but abandoned.

At this moment I jumped in to assume the role of peacemaker and set out clear rules for all the children to agree to. As the person with authority in the room, I quickly become the hero leader and was able to end the skirmish by reinstating agreed rules. But by doing this I also robbed the kids of their chance to find a better solution themselves through improvisation.

Kids are natural improvisers. Everyday play for a child is a feast of imagination — whether it's about creating funny dinosaurs that laugh their way out of eggs, or building a system of hidden caves created with blankets. Instead of solving the problem, I should have encouraged the children to use improvisation to solve the problem themselves. My role was to be optimistic and to ensure them they had all the tools they required to resolve the argument. By being optimistic that the children would solve their own problem, I could have helped grow their confidence and courage. The big epiphany? Future Fit Leaders should encourage improvisation because it goes together perfectly with optimism.

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Related to this lesson we can learn about leading with optimism from parenting is one of courage.

When our kids don't get the grades they were hoping it may seem like the world is ending for them. But how we respond as parents is critical to our children’s future. By embracing optimism and teaching our children greater courage — and with it the ability to move on from defeat — we help our offspring shift their perspective from the failure itself to the journey of working towards success.

The reality is that life is hard. However, hopefulness enables us to cope. If we can inspire greater courage, and with it instil a willingness to keep going, we can create in our children — and ourselves, a greater resilience.

The big win? If you struggle and overcome to reach success, that win is so much sweeter. This magic only happens if we are willing to accept failure and learn from it with optimism. This is something not many organisations’ cultures allow for, but we are seeing that Future Fit leaders are great at modelling that courageous behaviour — and when they do, their teams respond in kind.

In summary, try to encourage improvisation as a practice to grow courage and better deal with life’s challenges.

Lead with optimism. When you do, business works better.


Mike Perk is the Managing CEO of WWC, a ‘people focused’ digital transformation advisory, and a founding partner in Heavy Chef.