The Leadership Challenge for Working Parents

Applying the science of leadership to the art of parenting

Posted Mar 13, 2020

Stew Friedman and Alyssa Westring

Being a working parent is not easy.  Most feel overwhelmed, isolated, out of control, reactive to the demands of others, and generally failing in one way or another.  Working parents are pressed to achieve the perfect “work/life balance,” but this is a misguided aspiration because it’s impossible.  And there is a better way.  By seeing themselves as leaders, they can step back bit and assess their current reality – what and who matters most, in all parts of their lives – and find practical, creative ways to bring others along with them to a better tomorrow.  

Most of us, whether we realize it or not, adopt a trade-off mindset in thinking about the different facets of our lives. We assume we’re playing a zero-sum game, believing that gains in one area of life automatically come with losses to the other areas.  And, of course, sometimes this is how it is.  Working long, high-stress hours, as one obvious example, usually has a negative impact on everything else. If you’ve ever been snippy at the dinner table after a tough day at the office, you know what we mean. Similarly, hardships in our family lives don’t just magically disappear when we need to be present for our work responsibilities.

Our research has shown, however, that it’s fruitful to adopt a more expansive attitude, in which trade-offs are not the default assumption. Instead, we show parents how think and act like leaders.  Leaders envision a compelling image of an achievable future and inspire others to join them in its pursuit, building trust along the way. Isn’t this what we do as parents?  A crucial step toward being the leader you want to be at home and in all the parts of your life requires a fresh perspective on the connections among them and then undertaking innovative approaches to improve performance at work, at home, in the community, and for yourself (mind, body, and spirit). Instead of dreaming about balance, which implies sacrifice in one part for success in another, we show how to aim for “four-way wins.” These are changes (usually quite small and therefor doable) intentionally designed to produce better results for stakeholders in all domains, which makes such experiments more sustainable because they’re supported by all.   

It sounds like a tall order, but the possibility of such wins is there.  But we first have to look for them if we’re going to be able to pursue them and produce harmonious flow. But, in order to identify potential four-way wins for ourselves and our families, we need to start by systematically observing our lives as a whole to form a new appreciation for how no one part exists in isolation. This yields fresh insights about how work, family, community, and your private self all affect each other.  When a father in our Parents Who Lead workshop started exploring these interconnections, he noticed that “satisfaction in one area affects my mood and general happiness and thus allows me to perform well in the other areas of my life.” He could clearly see how his emotions spill over from one part of life to another. A working mother found that “when I work out and take time for myself, I am more likely to respond to my kids with kindness and grace.”  Investment in her health improved her parenting.  Another example: “Skills I’m learning in my new role as a manager at work, like setting goals and being patient, are helping me as I brave the new world of raising teenagers.”

Recognizing these interdependencies helps us see opportunities to generate wins across all parts of our lives, rather than limit our perspective to the requirement of sacrifice.  They’re usually not obvious and take some effort to uncover, but they’re there. To reveal some, begin by thinking about the different domains of your life. Your career, family, community (whether that’s religious organizations, friendships, or neighbors), and yourself. In the second column of the chart, note how important each of the four domains is to you now. Next, think about how much attention you focus on each domain in a typical week or month. Focus doesn’t just mean how much time you spend in a particular location. It’s about where your mind is (during your waking hours). Assign a percentage to each domain to represent the portion of your attention you devote to each domain so the total is 100 percent. Finally, in the last column, rate how satisfied you are with each domain on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “not at all satisfied” and 10 meaning “fully satisfied.”

Once you’ve filled out the chart, reflect on what it tells you. Notice the interconnections. Think about how the attention you dedicate to one domain affects the others, positively or negatively. Consider where there may be gaps between what is most important to you and how you allocate your attention. Observe how satisfaction in one part influences how things are going in the others.

Stew Friedman
My Four Way View
Source: Stew Friedman

Once we consciously explore the reality of these linkages in our own lives, we are better able to communicate (at least some of) this information with our parenting partners, children, colleagues, and friends. And it’s an opportunity to learn about how those people feel about the different domains of their lives and how they connect to yours.  

This process of diagnosis and discovery – reflection on what matters and dialogue with who matters – raises awareness of where our actions are at odds with our priorities.  This is what good leaders do.  When partners in parenting both undertake it – together, side-by-side – they become smarter about the real world they’re navigating every day and how to make it better. We’ve found that they come up with innovative ways to collaboratively experiment to improve things for everyone, and this is both fun and inspiring.  

Through our research, we’ve uncovered six categories of what we call “family four-way wins” that parents pursue to find greater harmony and improved performance.  These ideas can and should be customized to your specific situation – every family is different. They’re not intended as rigid templates. Indeed, most successful family four-way wins are hybrids, or combinations, of the general types we’ve observed.

1.      Generate Quality Time. A common theme among parents is that although they are spending time with the people who matter most, that time often lacks the careful attention, connection, and love it merits. Recognizing this, many parents explore ways to create protected time, free from distractions and intrusions. Tech-free family dinners, one-on-one mentoring meetings at work, or family game nights all represent a renewed focus on the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to how we engage with others. Experimenting with creating greater quality time helps us upend the wearisome premise that our problems are simply all about a lack of time. Choosing to give our attention to the people who matter most—whether at work, at home, or in the community— increases the chance of spillover benefits, or ripple effects, in the various domains of our lives.

2.      Let Go. We run into a lot of self-confessed perfectionists, people who are willing to expend whatever it takes to be successful. While we try to help people more mindfully define “success,” which usually means lessening the pressure to do everything perfectly, this can be hard to internalize. Parents often realize they are over-delivering in order to live up to their own perhaps perfectionist, or simply untested or misguided, expectations. Whether it’s how clean your house is, how nicely your reports are formatted, or how much you volunteer in your child’s classroom, it might be useful to explore letting certain things slide.

If you’re afraid your career will suffer, take heart in what our research reveals: when people reduce overall attention to work and focus more on high-priority tasks, while shifting some of their attention to other parts of their lives, they perform better at work. Seems paradoxical— less attention devoted to work yielding better performance at work— right? Not when you realize that it’s the result of working smarter, with less distraction, and more focus on the most important projects and people in your life.

3.      Coordinate Logistics. Parenting requires complex coordination as well as communication skills to figure out who, what, when, where, and how to get things done. Operating in survival mode has many of us rigidly holding on to routines. Even something as straightforward as who folds the laundry—and exactly how those towels must be folded—might be so deeply embedded in our daily lives that we never think to question it. Yet many families have found that when they explore new ways of coordinating the logistics of their lives (e.g., using a shared calendar, taking turns with pick-up and drop-off) they are able to find ways to structure their responsibilities that makes things better for everyone.  

4.      Practice Shared Values. Parents often notice a mismatch between what they say is important to them and what they practice in their everyday lives and cultivate in their children. Think about what you might do to more fully embrace what matters most to you as a family. This isn’t about judging yourself for not focusing on them. It’s also not about toppling your whole life to embrace an entirely new lifestyle. It’s about finding small, creative, and fun ways to spend time doing things that are meaningful – whether it’s volunteering at an animal shelter together or developing a family gratitude practice. It’s about looking at life from a new point of view wherein the seemingly disparate domains are all part of a whole. Even if it doesn’t pan out the way you want, just thinking about the potential benefits in the different parts of your life builds your capacity to see more opportunities for harmony and peace in your lives together.

5.      Build Health. Parents often experience a disconnect between the value they place on wellness and the attention they give to their physical and mental health. Caring for mind, body, and spirit has always been the most common experiment for parents and nonparents alike. For parents, though, it’s more complicated because we are seeking four-way wins for everyone in our families.  To be sustainable, changes need to be feasible in the hurly burly of the everyday. Yet, when you care for your own health, the attendant effects on your mood and energy are likely to be felt by all of those in your immediate circle—your children, coworkers, and others.  Parents tend to overlook how this can be done in the context of their lives. In caring for your health, therefore, it’s useful to think about how you might create a scenario in which it is likely to feel the most invigorating, manageable, and noticeably advantageous not just for you but for all those around you.

6.      Strengthen Networks. Despite providing ample research and testimonials about the importance of assembling your village, we encounter skeptical working parents at every turn. Most feel they have no time to invest in building community. And we get it: you can’t realistically join a parent organization at your children’s school, volunteer at your house of worship, bond with your nanny, have a weekly mom’s night out, and repair your messed-up relationship with your sibling, co-worker, or frenemy all at once. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make intelligent investments in your community to yield family four-way wins. Whether it’s becoming a Girl Scout Troop Leader, organizing a neighborhood potluck, or volunteering at your children’s schools, smart experiments design to improve relationships that matter can yield a sense of connection and support.

After initiating small, intentional shifts in their attention – and adjusting in light of what they learn along the way – parents generally report increased satisfaction and better performance in all of facets of their lives.  This challenges the common assumption many parents hold when we start working with them, that to improve one area of your life, you have to make sacrifices in others.  The evidence is clear: It doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game. Family four-way wins are possible, and we don’t have to completely revamp our lives to achieve them.

As a society, we need stronger legislation on family leave and better support for child care. But structural change takes time., Today’s working parents can’t afford to wait for sweeping institutional changes while they’re in the throes of child-rearing. They’re striving to contribute their talents to meaningful work while bringing up children in a world that seems ever more overwhelming, divided, and fragile.  Working parents must think and act like leaders now to gain a greater sense of purpose, control, and harmony – to lead the lives we truly want and thereby strengthen the foundation on which the next generation stands.