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What my nine year old taught me about leadership

What my nine year old taught me about leadership

Leadership is like parenting.

Brian Jacobsen | June 1, 2015

My nine year old son is a genius. Not in the ready-for-Mensa-look-at-my-IQ sort of way, rather he could write a book on leadership. He just doesn’t know it. The other day I was at home with my son, Nicholas, helping him refine his lacrosse skills, and it hit me. So much of what I’m seeking to exemplify as a leader I already know. Why?

Leadership is like parenting.

I treat my team like I treat my kids. What?! Isn’t that, um… what managers joke about behind closed doors? If support, encouragement, sacrifice, teaching and caring is funny, then joke away.

The parallels between the two – parenting and leading – are clear and the lines rather blurry. I’m not looking at it from a domineering aspect. The most effective leaders I have seen tap into many other methods to achieve a goal rather than wield the blunt end of the domineering hammer looking for a nail. As a parent, do you get further over the long term by being overbearing or looking for other avenues to achieve a desired result? Exactly.

Below are five lessons I’ve learned at home as a parent that I take to work as a leader:

  1. Leadership is a choice. You didn’t get here by accident. You make a choice every day to be a leader. How you show up, what you say, and how you act are decisions you make, consciously or not, that impact how people perceive your leadership (or lack of). Someone can be given a leader title, but that doesn’t make him or her a leader.

  2. Be a coach. In other words, ask, don’t tell. People want to learn and grow. The most effective way team members experience growth is by doing and figuring it out themselves. Rather than doing it or telling them how to do it, set direction and use great questions to guide the team to success. Although faster, avoid being the rescuer or stepping into “let me just do it” mode.

  3. Give ownership. Rather than having your team be “bought in” or “taken along the journey”, give them ownership! Your team doesn’t want to just be okay with the end result or decision; they want more. Only through ownership can your team be emotionally invested in the outcome. Caution: when you do this well, it’s not yours anymore.

  4. Sacrifice. When you made the choice to step into a leadership role, you agreed to be selfless. You give up your time for the benefit of others. The credit is no longer yours as you’ve given it to your team. You make sure your team has what they need before you have what you need. The downside? While you’ve given away all the credit and sacrificed, you are still responsible–you can’t give that away.

  5. Be proud. Your team has worked hard to get where they are. Under your guidance, coaching, support, and encouragement milestones have been achieved. Goals have been reached. Be proud. Let them know you’re proud. Tell them they should be proud. They’ve earned it.

Leadership is hard. It’s challenging and it’s not glamorous. Between books, classes, and training, an entire industry has been built on leadership development. While an ocean of resources is available to you, in many cases you already know what you need to do. Change the frame. Looking at it through another lens can help answer the question of, “What do I do now?” Whether you’re a leader in title or leading because it’s the right thing to do, your team is looking to you. Step up and fill that vacuum. The world can never have enough great leaders. If done right, it’s not about the leader, it’s about everyone else.

As the lacrosse ball sailed between the two of us, I wondered who was teaching who. Through his smiles and determination, Nicholas was unknowingly bestowing pearls of wisdom upon me, his proud father–in addition to a few lessons in lacrosse.

Brian Jacobsen is the general manager of Slalom Consulting’s Seattle office. He has 20 years of management consulting experience working with business and technology groups across all company sizes including start-up, emerging and Fortune 500. In 2011, he was honored as a recipient of the Puget Sound Business Journal’s “40 under 40” award.


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