What good parenting can teach us about compassionate leadership


If you can create a little human and help it stand upright, you no doubt can help your colleagues learn and grow, too, writes Alex Budak, a Silicon Valley social entrepreneur.

This weekend I attended my first ever one-year-old birthday party (well, besides my own, I suppose).

Whereas most birthday parties up until now have involved discussions beforehand of where to get dinner and drinks, this one included discussions of feeding schedules and nap times.  Also notable were the dozen or so adorable little kids filling the carpeted floor of the birthday girl’s home, crawling, waddling or wobbly-walking (finally a similarity to the end of some of the birthday parties I was used to!)

Also notable were the incredible parents sitting on the floor with their children, coaching them, cajoling them and supporting them as they fell down and got up again.

They showed such wonderful, supportive leadership to their children.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would bring this same mindset into work the next day.

Here are three lessons I think we all can learn from helping a baby take his or her first steps:

1.  Fail Forward

It’s no exaggeration to say that before a baby can take its first steps, it will have fallen down in every conceivable direction hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  There’s not a single baby that goes straight from a crawl to a runway model strut.  In between are glorious falls onto padded diaper bottoms and soft bellies.

Parents know that these failed steps are not only inevitable; they are imperative to learn how to walk.  Only by failing over and over again can the baby learn the balance and coordination needed to walk.  In other words, each fall is actually a fall forward towards being that much closer to walking.

How often at work, though, do we expect our teammates to do perfectly on the first try?  An overly wordy first draft of a memo actually has a lot in common with a stumbling baby.  Only by learning what works and what doesn’t, through doing, can we improve.

On our team, we held the belief that we could only be innovative and create great work if we were comfortable knowing that we would fail.  Like babies, we failed all the time — we just did our best to make sure we always failed forward, and learned new lessons to help us improve the next time.

2.  Coach, Don’t Control

To an adult, walking could not be simpler.  Just put one foot in front of the other and then go.  For a baby, though, it requires all kinds of micro movements and lessons to understand how their body works.  A parent cannot just grab a child by the ankle and place it in front of the child, then expect them to move.  Neither does yelling detailed step-by-step instructions make any difference.

Rather, it’s a lesson in humility; we cannot control the situation directly.  We can only coach and give support, while providing the space for the baby to walk on its own.

In the office, a manager can prescribe exactly how she thinks something should be done, or she could try to do the entire presentation for her teammate, but ultimately neither creates any positive growth.  As hard as it is to watch a baby fall down time and time again, it’s also a perfect lesson in relinquishing control and creating space, in service of the baby and its goals, rather than our own need for everyone to be perfect.

3.  Provide Safety

Google recently released its findings, after years of analysis on its tens of thousands of employees, on what makes a great team.  The first key?  Safety.

From the report:

“Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviours that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of  self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective  teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles.”

A parent, meanwhile, provides this safety without second thought.  Parents provide physical safety in making sure a child walks on a carpet instead of a cactus garden, makes sure sharp objects are out of the way, and generally create a secure environment in which to walk and fall.  Parents also provide emotional safety with positive body language, smiles, upbeat encouragement and other emotional triggers.  Before any parent would let their child practice walking, they’d make sure the environment is safe.

What about at work?  A hurried email on a Friday afternoon, a sharp-tongued rebuke during a team meeting, and a lack of praise, are all equivalent to building a garden of cacti for your team, rather than helping them find a soft carpet.  To be sure, there is room for critical feedback, but that message is only heard if a teammate already feels safe in the team.

For those with kids, being a parent is perhaps the most important job imaginable.  And it’s also a treasure trove of leadership lessons to be gained.  But don’t let those lessons remain in the toy bin at home — take them to work with you.  After all, if you can create a little human and help it stand upright, you no doubt can help your colleagues learn and grow, too.

Alex Budak is a social entrepreneur and the author of The Changemaker Toolkit.