Lead at Home as You Lead at Work

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why some prominent leaders appear to have trouble leading their own families.

What would prevent a dynamic business leader who inspires loyalty and productivity from a diverse workforce from achieving the similar results at home?  Too often, I encounter men and women who are at the absolute pinnacle of their profession, struggling to conduct their family affairs with the same degree of vision, flexibility, and fortitude.  In my experience, maintaining this balance really matters because family is an amazing source of nourishment for an executive’s confidence and strength. Yet when a leader’s home is in disarray, it can subtly erode and undermine his effectiveness at work.

I often talk about the importance of bringing your whole self to work. That basically means decompartmentalizing your personal talents in order to share a broader range of skills and knowledge with your organization.  Similarly, I encourage business leaders to be brave enough to bring their whole self home. In this case, you should trust that your leadership abilities would be just as relevant at home as in the office.

So why don’t more professionals lead at home like they do at the office? First, let’s brush aside the conclusion that they’re simply distracted by work and don’t have time. That’s too simplistic. I know plenty of top executives who devote a lot of attention to their spouses and children. But if authentic leadership should transcend all boundaries, then what changes when we cross the threshold to our homes?

My theory is that many professionals are concerned that applying formal leadership principals at home will somehow compromise the organic and sacred institution of family. To them, the use of vision, strategy, and goals feels too rigid and sterile to subject their loved ones to.  However, I would argue that the what of leadership should remain a constant – it’s the how that needs some adjustment based on the context.  Sharing a vision and establishing goals is never a bad thing, and family relationships aren’t so fragile that they can’t survive structured leadership.

I think a major issue is how leaders sell and maintain their agenda at home.  Family members don’t adhere to clear reporting lines, and those of us who are parents know that imposing direct authority doesn’t often win favor or compliance.  Instead, leading at home requires more persuasion and influence than command and control.  So, how do you get buy-in at home? Rational appeals often fall on deaf ears, but understanding the emotional subtext can be a powerful pathway. This requires leaders to confront emotions like fear, enthusiasm, sadness, and frustration with tools like compassion, forgiveness, toughness, and persistence.

Perhaps this is where leading at home is most different than the office – family demands more intimacy, which is often discouraged in the workplace. The military gets this. They understand that in life and death scenarios, you have to know to what people really care about, what they’re afraid of, and what they live for.  Fraternities and sororities also harness intimacy to form solidarity around common goals.   These groups recognize that it’s necessary to get involved with people’s feelings if you want them to commit for the long haul.

Of course, as the military knows, it’s not enough to be closely attuned to each other’s emotions and motives.  Leading with intimacy must also be coupled with a clear sense of purpose and principles.  When I was young, people used to learn about how families should behave from their church. But as participation in organized religion wanes, leaders must establish their domestic values independently.

Here’s what you can do now… First, create your vision – beginning at the end – by fantasizing about your ideal family life in retirement. What will you be doing? How will you be communicating with your family members? Where will you spend your time together? For example you might say, “I envision that when my children reach adulthood, they will seek advice from me about their personal lives and careers.” Or, “I envision my family gathering together at the beach every summer for annual events that are filled with laughter, tradition, and shared hobbies.”

Next, think of what core set of principals should apply no matter what challenges arise. For example, if “keeping everyone in the fold” is a principle, tolerant leadership will be needed to avoid all or nothing choices that can end in estrangement. That particular principal may require you to support unpopular decisions (e.g. marriage partners) and adopt more flexible expectations of others.

Finally, I encourage you to cultivate a culture of forgiveness at home.  As we know, life is a journey and hard times are inevitable. You will be tested – and perhaps disappointed – again and again. But real leadership requires tolerance and compassion because pushing family members out of the organization is not an option!


- Renee -

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