teeter totter

Photo by cho45 on Flickr

Many families and couples I know have one person who tends to take the lead: a kind of family CEO who seems to be in charge of decisions, suggestion, ideas, and daily schedules.

In our family, that used to be me. That is, until, we decided to shake things up by turning them upsidedown - with some remarkable results.

Pros and Cons of Having a Clear Family Leader

Pros: Predictability, Ease, Efficiency

Having a clear (even if unspoken) family leader had its advantages, including predictability, ease, and efficiency. Before our shake-up, everyone knew where to bring their Big Questions (can I wear my rainboots instead of snow boots today?) and whom to consult on Family Plans (are we doing Indian food with the usual crowd tonight?).

However, it turned out that a consistent imbalance of leadership in our family also led to some unintended consequences for my partner and me.

Cons: Resentment, Disempowerment, Role-Stuckness

For him, this included a (mostly unrecognized) sense of having less "power" and "mattering," which manifested in questions such as: does my voice count? is my role as important in this home?

For me, it showed up as a growing sense of "over-responsibility" which was sometimes burdensome and confining - and was evident in demands such as: I want a co-parent - not helper! I can't make another decision today - can't you just pick?

Time for a Power-Re-Alignment?

Of course we had long been aware of these role differences (which were frequently featured in "bossy-ness" jokes by our friends). However, through a series of intimate, radically honest conversations we began to have over the past 6 months, the problems with our leadership imbalance became clearer and more urgent.

And so, we decided to make a change - to shift the roles and dynamics in the family to a true co-leadership, co-parenting model.

Co-Leadership: Easier Said Than Done

It turned out that (duh!) re-balancing the leadership scale was not as easy as saying "ok, let's co-lead now!"

Habits had been formed over many years together and were reinforced daily, hourly, by our kids and our own inability to move into a new way of being. Accusations and hurt feelings abounded.

"If you would just give me some room!" he fumed, "instead of jumping in every time and taking charge!"

"True leaders don't wait for someone to invite them!" I'd retort. "They listen and watch and then step in with a great idea - like 'hey guys, I've been thinking that maybe we can try...' "

Both sides admitted that the other had a point. Both sides felt stuck and unable to shift the dynamics, despite "good intentions."

Shifting Leadership Dynamics: A Kooky Idea That Worked

Then one Saturday morning, when I was feeling that I could barely get out of bed, never mind lead my family into the battle of daily-living, my husband announced in seeming-full-seriousness:

"I'm in Charge today. I'm gonna take care of everything. You don't have to do a thing. I'm gonna create a strong, cheerful container for all of us - you just relax and let me lead."

In my state of exhaustion and utter gray-ness that morning, this kooky suggestion felt like a welcome relief. A whole day of not making a single darn decision seemed like a spa vacation for my tired self.

It turned out that far beyond having a good day (which we did), like many of the great inventions of history, we had accidentally discovered the formula that would shift us from CEO to Partners.

The Secret: Taking Turns Being in Charge

It turned out that the secret was to switch leadership hats for large chunks of time - giving the reigns to the other person for a whole day or weekend.

This allowed both of us to immerse ourselves in the new roles (which, of course, is the best way to learn a new skill or make a cultural shift) - and gave everyone a chance to experience the other person as a leader.

It didn't hurt that we had fun with it either:

"Mom, can I have seconds of desert?"

"Oh, I don't know, honey. Your dad is in charge today."

"Mom, Rachel won't leave me alone and I wanna have some private time."

"Mmmm. Not sure about that. Your dad is in charge today."

The Results: Amazing Grace

Amazingly, we could feel the positive results after only a few days of Taking Turns.

The old ruts were being eroded. New habits were being formed. Mattering (for him) and Freedom (for me) crackled in the air.

Incredibly, after about a month and a half of playing around with this practice, our leadership scale feels more balanced than it has in 10 years of trying to co-parent together. The Turn-Taking has now been infused into our relationship in a more natural way.

The Next Frontier? 

After watching us play with this practice for many weeks, our 9 yr old asked if he could have a day of being in charge too.

So, this Saturday, our family is being led by a gawky 4th grader in footsy pajamas who thinks "having gas in class" is the funniest thing on earth and "fairness" is being aloud to stay up as long as he wishes.

But that sounds like a possible post for another day.


Thinking of trying this experiment at home? I'd love to hear how it goes!

Have a fun way that helps you co-lead and co-parent in your family? Please take a minute to share in the Comments below. We can all use the co-inspiration and co-support!

About the Author

Elaine Shpungin Ph.D.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

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