The fact that saying "parenting is a full-time job" is cliche doesn't make it any less true. But we seldom see parents—with all the hard work and specialist skills they bring to the challenge—as actual professionals in that field.
And while trying to advance that claim may come off as patronizing, failing to point it out would be a missed opportunity. Incidentally, it's exactly this balance, between risking condescension and withholding important information, that parents face every day with their children. Through intuition, experience, and often difficult analysis, parents hone a skill that other leaders regularly struggle with: knowing how and when to let go of control and set expectations instead.
You’re under pressure from your kids to give them enough attention and cater to their physical needs, a pressure that becomes less constant but no less real as they grow up. At the same time, you’re under pressure from yourself to make sure that they’re safe, happy, and learning to deal with the world in appropriate ways. With every ounce of energy going into this balancing act, it’s easy to take shortcuts, and that’s the point at which parenting becomes controlling.
It’s easier to say, "You can’t go to that place" than to teach your child to play safely in a less secure environment. It’s easier to discourage their friendship with a child whose influence you don’t like than it is to counterbalance that influence or discuss why their behavior is a problem. It’s emotionally easier to keep micromanaging a child’s behavior, pointing out every time things might go wrong, than to let go and let them take risks—even those that might hurt them but will let them grow. Because you aren’t just risking your child’s health and happiness—you’re risking your own feelings, too.
The more you control a child, the less they get to develop their own courage, judgment, and initiative. And if you don’t notice periods at which children outgrow old restrictions, then you risk creating the kind of resentment that's the hallmark of the sulking teenager, with all the sour relationships and wasted emotional energy that entails.
Effective parenting involves setting boundaries, explaining why they exist, and then trusting children to respond to them on their own. It means actively involving kids in their parents' adult lives, by making them part of conversations about what to do on the weekend, for instance, or giving them chores and responsibilities around the house. It means giving kids as much initiative as they can cope with at their age.
Think back to when you were a kid. Did you like it when your parents were controlling? Or did you prefer to be trusted? Now think about how it feels, as an adult, to be controlled and not to be trusted.
That visceral feeling is something we should always go back to as leaders when we worry our leadership style isn't being well-received. Set boundaries in the workplace instead of micromanaging. Let employees take risks. Involved them in decision-making. Don’t control.
But how do you ease up on the controls without causing chaos? How do you guide without getting in the way?
One solution comes from a surprising place—or at least, surprising after a conversation about parenting. Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking has made an excellent argument for adopting the military approach of establishing purpose and doctrine. Adopting a leadership approach drawn from military combat may seem inappropriate for the opposite reasons that learning from effective parents might've sounded dubious—the one too nurturing, the other too severe. But they're a lot more similar than you might think.
In war, it’s impossible for leaders to control what's happening on the ground. Enemy action and unforeseen accidents mean that troops have to be able to adapt. For these adaptations to be effective, they need to follow the best steps they can under different situations. And so troops are provided with purpose and doctrine to guide their way.
"Purpose" is what it sounds like: it's the aim of the battle, campaign, or even war. For a business, it's the company's goals, both long- and short-term. So set targets and make sure to share them. If soldiers know what the aim of the fighting is, then they'll be better equipped to make decisions that serve that purpose. If employees know your goals, then they'll be better able to keep working toward them.
"Doctrine" is a set of guidelines for achieving that purpose. It could be anything from Henry V’s adoption of defensive archery formations to the way a modern war fleet is structured. It's about tactics. Doctrine doesn’t tell soldiers what decisions to make, but it tells them how to make those decisions.
The equivalent of doctrine in most organizations is the company's standard procedures and other guidance documents. Badly written and inflexible procedures can be controlling and counterproductive, as many of us know firsthand. They rigidly define every last detail of a task, leaving employees' no initiative to adapt to circumstances.
Good procedures instead provide a doctrine. They leave employees free to make decisions appropriate to their skills and level of authority. They let them make use of the knowledge they've developed.
By now, the connection with parenting should be pretty clear. But one reason we seldom think of either parents or military generals as exemplars of leadership in business contexts is because we fail to see how both strike this careful balance. After all, letting go is hard. It's hard for a parent to trust their children to make smart, safe decisions on their own. It’s hard for a general to put a carefully shaped strategy in the hands of subordinates.
And likewise, it’s hard for a manager to leave others to make decisions that they know they could make for them. But ultimately, letting go of control and replacing it with purpose and doctrine will lead to happier, more effective teams—to people who can grow and decide and take risks all on their own.