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Leadership Lessons from the Littles: #1 Letting Go of Attachment

Amanda Silver

I am the mother of two children.  Sophia and Joshua are delightful creatures that inspire all kinds of emotional states in me, from great joy and delight to incredible frustration and the feeling of wanting to tear my hair out.  They keep life interesting.

As a leadership development coach and consultant, I help teams and people that are stuck in thorny challenges get unstuck.  I facilitate retreats.  I run meetings.  I coach leaders.  I have toolkits and resources and experience in my backpocket.  One might think that given my experience, I would be relatively prepared for parenting.

Not a chance.

There is nothing in my professional background like the challenge of getting a resistant 4-year old to bed.  Or of corralling two wayward children out the door in time for anything. Or determining who’s doing what to manage the house logistics with my husband.  My kids bring me to my knees, pretty much on a daily basis.

This also means that my children are my greatest teachers.   They show me where I have work to do, both on myself and in my leadership.  And they help to reinforce things that I want to do, but don’t always remember.  

This week (and lifetime), I’m learning about flexibility.

All the parenting books and experts talk about how to give your children some autonomy by offering them choices when you want them to do something.  I followed this advice recently when I needed to get my four year-old dressed to go outside.  

Me: Do you want to wear your purple socks or the green socks?
Sophia: I don’t want to wear socks.
Me: You need to wear your socks, so pick one of these choices.
Sophia: I don’t want to wear socks.
Me: They are perfectly good choices. Pick some socks.  
Sophia: NO! I WILL NOT. I WILL NOT WEAR SOCKS!!!  I WILL NOT WEAR SOCKS!!

It took less than a minute for the choices wisdom to backfire.  As I felt my patience begin to fray, I almost yelled back, in my firmest ADULT voice.  “YES, YOU WILL WEAR SOCKS!!!”  But somehow, I remembered to take a breath.

Then I thought to myself, “Does she really need to wear socks? Do I need to be so rigid on this sock issue?” The answer was no.  It was warm enough outside. Maybe a little cooler than my preference, but warm enough.  I wanted Sophia to wear socks because I was attached to the idea that it was the right thing to do. And I was proud of myself for remembering to give her two choices in the first place.  But it turned out I didn’t care that much.  So I regrouped and took another approach.  

Me: Okay. You don’t have to wear socks.      
Sophia: I don’t? (a little suspiciously)
Me: No.  But you need to bring socks.  And if your feet get cold, you need to put them on. Please pick a pair.
Sophia: Ok.  I choose one Green sock and one Purple.
Which she did.  And she happily put on her shoes and we left the house.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

We all get attached to certain ways of doing things.  It could be wearing socks, it could be how we run a meeting, create a program, communicate with our stakeholders…you fill in the blank.  You know that you are attached when your gut kicks in with some firm version of “This is how we do it!”

Sometimes our attachments can limit our ability to achieve our end results.  While they have served us in the past, our attachments might actually get in the way of getting to where we want to go.  In my case, out the door with my child.

It’s good to question our attachments from time to time.  Three questions that can help us do that are:  

-- Where do I find myself inflexible or unwilling to bend?
-- Do I absolutely need to be this way? Is there a little wiggle room?
-- If yes, what are my absolutes?  I could bend on Sophia wearing socks, but I did want to make sure she had a pair with her, just in case.

Last but not least, a well-timed deep breath can make all the difference. When we notice ourselves becoming inflexible, whether it's with our child or a colleague, a deep breath may be all that’s needed to pause, reset and try a different approach.

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