This post is about hope and how to make it actionable. It recognizes that the more people depend on you – whether that is in your role as a leader or as a parent – the more overwhelming the day to day can feel and you seek out methods for getting beyond the transactional. If you are a new parent or an emerging group leader feeling vulnerable and questioning how to have meaningful impact over the long term, this post is for you. Let’s dig in.
Vulnerability & Authority
All Eyes on You. When I first became a group manager, it was the summer of 2012. I wasn’t supposed to get the job – someone was retiring, and the person chosen to take their place ended up moving to China instead. But that’s the way careers work sometimes – you prepare as best you can for happy accidents. The group was a diverse set of professionals - some were young college hires, but most were older than their new leader who hadn’t hit 30 yet. I remember two things about the day I met my new team of 20 or so people. First, I remember just how gracious the outgoing group manager was. He barely knew me, yet if you heard him introduce me, you’d think I was destined for this role. He knew how vulnerable I felt stepping into a large role and the speech was for me as much as the team. Second, I remember how everyone in the room was watching me. Reading my body language. Seeing how I reacted to whatever someone said. I was in the fishbowl and people were tapping on the glass.
When you are thrust into positions of authority – be it a new parent or a group leader at work – several things collide all at once. First, you feel extremely vulnerable as you suddenly have a new relationship with those around you. Second, this is compounded by the fact that you can’t process it all in isolation or on your own timeline. Third, most new roles are coupled with an overwhelming number of transactional activities. If that’s a parent, it’s feeding and changing diapers and cleaning up. If it’s at work, there are often a million short term results and affairs to be set in order.
Yet pushing through all this pressure cooker stress is this voice that asks, “How do I make the most of this opportunity? What impact can I have on others? How do I leave a legacy worthy of my efforts?”
Thoughts, Wants, Feelings
Life Lessons from Carnies. We took our oldest daughter to Knotts Berry Farm over the winter holidays a couple years ago. She stopped at one of those carnival games – the one where you have to climb a rope ladder to ring a bell at the top. She was interested in the oversized stuffed animal prize and in her head this was easy pickings. We agreed to let her try it and off she went for her three tries up the rope ladder. It was 100 times more difficult than she had imagined and you could almost hear the gears spinning in her head as she confronted this huge mismatch between the way she believed the world worked and the way it actually did. It was such a poignant example of a young mind’s wants and feelings colliding in a way that was molding her identity. We remember it because it was one of the first moments as parents where our daughter was looking at us for a reaction that wasn’t just about safety/security/warmth. We were making our way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – beyond basic and into physiological. What kind of imprint did we want to leave on our daughter in this moment? Push her to be her best? Brush it off as not a big deal? Keep up the vacation vibe and positive feelings? Explain to her life is hard and doesn’t always work out so she shouldn’t get her hopes up?
I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be paired with a few different leadership coaches and a common theme among them has been to take a holistic look at your relationships. Much focus is placed on influencing what people think – but coaches encourage us to examine what people want and how they feel as well. It turns out thoughts are impacted by wants and feelings, not the other way around. I think we all intrinsically know this when we react to a proposal from someone we dislike or when we judge our kid’s behavior more harshly after a tough day at the office. Our neural processing units are constantly impacted by our background feelings and wants.
This frames the way I think about goal setting as a leader or a parent. The most important goals are not influencing thoughts but developing hunger and drive and influencing feelings. Many of you might be recalling the Maya Angelou quote right now – “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The Question to Ask Yourself
Over time, I’ve played around with different strategies for how to frame goals as a leader. What’s the best question to ask when thrust into a new position and looking to establish some sort of True North? Out of all the framings I’ve considered, this question has popped as the most meaningful:
What are the gifts you hope to give to the people around you?
This statement does several things. First, it recognizes that you are in a position of privilege. It harnesses that vulnerability that all new parents or emerging leaders feel being thrust into a new situation and recognizes it as an opportunity. Second, it focuses not on the transactional day to day activities, but gets you building for the long term. Third, meaningful gift giving pushes you to think about developing wants and feelings in those around you. Fourth, it’s a question that gives action to hope and centers you away from cynicism.
I think it’s a better question than “What type of leader do I want to be?” or “What’s my parenting philosophy?” because those are both hard and overwhelming questions and they put the focus on you, not on others.
Examples: The Gifts We Hope to Give Our Kids
Here are a few examples of the gifts we hope to give our daughters:
Self-confidence. We believe in praise and lots of it. Emphatic if it’s deserved. Straight forward even if it’s not. This is the strongest shield we know how to give our kids and the biggest force multiplier to their own natural strengths.
Expression of a wide range of feelings. Early on we decided that we would prioritize enabling our kids to name, tame, and access a full range of emotions. This felt like a bet at the time – especially in pre-toddler stage when the line between “expressing your emotions” and “throwing a tantrum” is as fine as the spaghetti noodle they have thrown on the floor. But we’ve noticed in our older daughter how it’s already started to pay off in her maturity level today.
Love of academic learning. There are so many choices in how to have infectious energy as a parent. Music. Sports. Any hobby. For us, steeped in what our parents taught us, learning to love to learn is what we prioritize. We talk about this one a bit in our Top 5 Children’s Books post.
Comfortable with decision making. We’ve prioritized letting our kids make decisions, even small ones. Should we go to the zoo or the park? Where should we go for dinner? There are limits of course and kids need just enough structure and signals from authority, but on the margin we’ve decided to empower our kids to be more comfortable than average with making decisions and weighing tradeoffs. If done poorly this veers into letting your kids run your life, so it was important for us to have a good grounding in the gift we were trying to instill with this approach vs. us being lazy parents.
You’ll notice inherent in many of these gifts is a tradeoff. Most gifts do not come without a price. Early empowerment in decision making comes at the cost of structure. Expressing emotion and self-confidence can be perceived as spoiling children. This is a good thing – it makes the gift thoughtful and meaningful. It’s staking an opinion about the individual and the world and helping them shape their feelings and wants.
What gifts do you want to give your children? Write it down and don’t be afraid to modify and evolve. It’ll probably be based upon the gifts your parents gave you – and the gifts you wish you had from them but didn’t. The list should be long enough that you are choosing among some great options. The art of having to choose forced great conversations about the mark we want to leave long after we are gone.
Examples at Work: Empowering Your Employees
This equally applies to a work situation as well. Beyond just coaching, modelling, and caring for your employees, ask yourself what the gift is you hope to leave each one with. Many times a peer or even a boss has a harder job than you do, and thinking about the gifts you can give them as they step into a challenging role is a useful framing. Here are a few examples:
Psychological safety and comfort with risk taking. A sense of safety is important in the organization I work in. Those comfortable and safe express more diverse opinions and are comfortable taking risk. It avoids a “cover your ass” culture. It establishes long term healthy feelings towards work and career.
A desire to excel and be pushed. I try to realize when my employees are bored before they realize it. This is the most powerful gift my bosses have given me in my 15 years at work. I aspire to be someone who constructively pushes people to set a higher quality bar and feel great about achieving it. Developing a hunger for excellence is such a powerful gift.
A wanting to be recognized for your strengths. Being recognized and praised for your strengths encourages you to do your best work. Specific, meaningful, and tied to outcomes – a culture of authentic recognition breeds the gift of a hunger for further accomplishment.
Notice that these gifts are not directly related to the results of the business. That’s intentional. So much time is spent on crafting, refining, discussing, and debating results – and that’s necessary. But it becomes a religion all too quickly. I argue the gifts you hope to give is a better and more important question than what you hope to deliver, what type of leader you want to be, or the culture you want to own.
It’s Not all Rainbows: The Gift of Tough Love
Pink Slip Gratitude. Shortly after I became a manager for the first time, my mentor was discussing with me an email he received from a former employee. It was short but heartfelt note that went something like this: “You may not remember me but 10 years ago you fired me from my job as a program manager. I was angry with you at the time but I feel the need to just let you know that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was a terrible PM but didn’t know it and that event was the catalyst I needed to find my true passion in life. It was a hard road but I’m so much happier now because of it.”
Not all gifts need to push people down the roads they have chosen for themselves already. Sometimes helping them realize they have driven down a cul-de-sac and not a freeway is what they need. That’s one of the hardest parts of being an authority figure – when the tough action is the right action. At work, being an editor of your team’s work is an arduous but critical task. Unlocking the best of someone when they just haven’t done good enough work takes radical but healthy candor. The gift you give is to unlock self-awareness without harming self-respect. And as parents, we all make decisions on how much we harden our kids for the world ahead.
Putting Into Practice
Take a minute and write down six to ten gifts you hope to give and then choose the top 3. Whether that is to a son or daughter or a work team or someone important in your life. It’ll be cathartic, channeling that stress and vulnerability.
There is no rule book for how to use your answers after you’ve written them down. I’ve found they give me fortitude when the transactional part of my day gets overwhelming – helping me focus on the important over the urgent. And secondly, it helps often to answer the Why behind a gut feel for Choice A over Choice B you have. It’s a way of mind melding with your co-parent or other leaders by giving words to your approach.
Finally, I’d love to hear about anyone who puts this into practice. Feel free to share with me what gifts you’ve chosen for those you lead – you can hit me up at @AdamHarmetz on Twitter or message me on LinkedIn.
Coda on Privilege
We end most of our posts with a note on privilege and ways to give back. For this post, two different causes struck a chord.
The first in a book that the New York Times recommended by a nonprofit dedicated to investing in women leadership to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. The book is called Vital Voices: 100 Women Using their Power to Empower and is available with a donation to their charity. It includes a forward by the amazing National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (you heard her most recently at the Biden/Harris inauguration) and include 100 first person excepts from women leaders around the world. The notion of vulnerability and inclusive leadership stems often from a study of female leadership. Our copy of this book has yet to arrive, but it seems exactly aligned with themes here.
Secondly, you’ll notice this post opened with a note about hope. This post in essence is about how to banish cynicism and keep positive despite the pressures of the world. If there is one modern leader who exemplifies this principle, it’s Barack Obama. His foundation work post presidency is inspiring and exactly aligned with the principles of this post. Check out his foundation and consider adding it to your giving list: Welcome to the Obama Foundation.
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