Learning about Leadership from a Toddler


Two years ago I would have fled this post and its promise of saccharin-sweet musings. Be spontaneous! Get up when you fall! Own those green beans you’ve smeared on your face!

Becoming a parent is a transformational life change that no only really wants to hear about in detail. This is entirely justified. My child is not interesting to you, not in a capital “I” sense, and I have no illusions that he should be. The science shows that you’re genetically wired to smile at him, but that only buys me a few minutes, if that. And so I will try to make this quick.

My son is a magnificent boy, and learning to be his mother has been relentless and humbling and wonderful, for both expected and unexpected reasons, as is true with any child. The relentless and humbling parts have application beyond the parenting challenge, I think, which is why I’m plowing forward on this one.

Leadership, at its core, is about enabling the success of other people, which means helping people channel the best possible version of themselves. Pulling it off means learning to walk the walk –- learning to unleash that boldest, most courageous, most empathetic version of yourself. To lead is to model the behaviors you want your organization to adopt. Nothing will have more of an impact on your colleagues than demonstrating what it means to bring your best self to the office every day.

Parenting a toddler has taught me the cost of giving that version of me any time off. My son is paying constant attention. He is hanging on my language and choices for evidence of how to be in the world. My obligation is to match the intensity of his interest with an unflagging commitment to show him the way forward. And when I stumble on that path, when my best self is crowded out by impatience or exhaustion or anxiety, he is less likely to find his way. Period. The same dynamics apply to organizations.

I have no illusions that I won’t stumble. The version of me that deserves to be this boy’s mom or that woman’s manager will not always show up for the privilege. But my son has taught me the costs of those missteps, and that my job as a parent and leader is to do whatever it takes to minimize them. My task is to create the conditions for others to thrive –- which starts with the underslept, overcommitted woman in the Elmo mirror.


Monday, March 16, 2009