How My Daughter Taught Me to Be A Better Leader

I have a daughter—an adorable, precocious, soon-to-be three-year-old who rules my world. How I manage to leave her every day to come to the office is still a mystery, because when it’s Ava-and-me time, nothing else matters—no work, no email, no phone. It’s all about her. In those moments, I’ve learned the most about myself, which in turn has made me a better leader. Here are three leadership lessons I’ve gleaned from raising my daughter:

1. Take a Step Back (i.e., don’t be a helicopter boss)

Ava recently moved into an “I can do everything myself and I certainly don’t need your help” stage—and I’ve got to say, it sort of broke my heart. Of course, this is what I want for her. I want my little girl to be independent, strong, and confident; I want her to set out and explore. At the same time, though, part of me misses being the center of her world—having her need me. I’ve had to learn how to let go and trust that my husband and I have given her the knowledge she needs to make good decisions—even at the age three. Of course, I’d never let her put her hand on the stove to see if it’s hot, but it’s okay if she falls down now and again. She’ll pick herself back up and be even stronger for having done so.

The same goes for my employees. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to learn from them. I can’t be a helicopter boss—nor do I want to be. I’d much rather provide my team with the knowledge and training they need to make good decisions in their roles, and then step back and watch them succeed. Taking this one step further, just as I’m proud of my daughter’s accomplishments—last week, without any announcement, she went potty completely unassisted for the first time and then celebrated her big moment—I’m also proud of my employees’ successes. And that holds true especially when those successes lead them to tackle new adventures—like leadership opportunities and experiences that take them out of their comfort zones. Of course, I’m occasionally nervous for them to take that next step, but in the end it’s my job to prepare them—and my daughter—to traverse uncharted territory.

2. Set Clear Expectations

My husband and I love to travel, and we do so quite frequently for work, so we made the decision to start traveling with Ava early—when she was about six weeks old. (My husband actually hopes she becomes the youngest Southwest flyer to earn A-list status. She’s close!) Today, Ava gets so many compliments on her wonderful flying behavior. Often, after the plane has landed, she’ll pop her head up above the seat and the people around us will be shocked to learn they sat near a toddler the whole flight. But this amazing behavior didn’t happen overnight. We started setting expectations and outlining processes with her from the very beginning so she knew what to do—and what to expect—at an airport and on the plane. That way, there are no surprises for her, for us, or for anyone in adjacent rows.

I do the same for my employees. As a company, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort creating our culture and developing behaviors and core values that align with it. This has been an incredible asset in helping us set expectations and instil accountability from the very beginning. We start talking culture during the interview process. That way, everyone’s on board early and we have a smooth, turbulence-free flight. This also allows us to grant our employees more freedom and more privileges, because we trust that they have the foundation on which to make the right decisions within the expectations that we’ve all agreed upon together. And at the same time, they know exactly what they can expect from us.

3. Be a Coach (Not a Cheerleader)

Positive reinforcement is an amazing tool and a really powerful motivator, but too much of a good thing can be very bad. In this case, too much positive reinforcement can start to feel fake, shallow, and meaningless— lots of ”rah rah” without any depth. And even a toddler can pick up on false sentiment. In teaching our daughter how to be in this world, we encourage her to accomplish goals, help her along the way, and then reward her for her achievements. Sure, we encourage effort, but not in the trite “trophy for participation” sort of way. We make our encouragement meaningful, and in order to do this, we must really be present and listen to her. We never reward with food, but we do reward with things that are actually motivating to her, like extra time at the park, playing with Play-Doh or GoldieBlox. But mostly, we focus on encouraging the intrinsic reward of accomplishment—that awesome feeling she gets when she correctly finishes the puzzle she sets out to solve.

We use the same philosophy at the office. When I give praise—which is often—I make sure to be specific about it. Instead of saying, “Nice job, Joe”—a clichéd platitude—I say something like, “Wow, Joe. You really delivered on that project. We couldn’t have met our deadline without your exceptional leadership skills.” Not only does this encourage Joe’s accomplishments, but it’s specific enough that he knows it’s meaningful, which in turn will motivate him to continue to exhibit those great skills.

On the other hand, if Joe’s performance hasn’t been exemplary recently, we sit down for an actual conversation where we’re both physically on the same level. I move from behind my “boss” desk and we sit across from each other at a small meeting table in my office to talk—no sugar coating and no condescension. We have an open and direct dialogue about the issue and its resolution. After all, it’s a coaching opportunity—a conversation, not a command—and the same goes for Ava. We use timeouts in our home, which work like a charm because both my husband and I get down to her level to discuss the reasons she’s facing a punishment. We crouch down, eye-to-eye and ask Ava to explain to us what she thinks about the situation—whether she demonstrated good or bad behavior. Most of the time she knows exactly what she did and why it wasn’t acceptable, so she goes into her timeout understanding the process—and on some level, appreciating its consistency—instead of being baffled by the consequences of her actions.

Parenting isn’t easy, and neither is being a good leader. But it’s funny how much one can teach you about the other. What lessons have you learned from your children? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below.