Parenting skills can make good leaders

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Frank Rossi
  • 50th Flying Training Squadron
While recently attending a course for supervisors called "Managing Difficult Conversations," I was reminded of a must-read book for parents entitled "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk," by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

My wife, a former squadron executive officer, once said that fathers make good commanders. Before we had kids, I never understood her point; but now, as a father of four young children, I realize parents use leadership skills that commanders and supervisors need every day.

Lead by example. As a parent, I quickly learned that children are like little mirrors, reflecting their parents' every move and behavior - whether good or bad - and the same goes for subordinates.

One of my best lessons in the pitfalls of the "do as I say, not as I do" approach is getting our kids ready for bed.

After much exasperation at failing to coax - some would say coerce - our kids into putting on their pajamas and brushing their teeth, my wife came upon the novel idea of having the two of us get ready for bed first. It was like magic as our kids followed along. Some nights we even make a game of it, racing to see who's ready first (I usually lose).

Active listening. I cannot overemphasize how important active listening has been to me as a parent and military leader. We've all been there, right in the middle of something important, when the kids come in with time sensitive information to share.

By stopping and listening, the very powerful statement of "You are important to me" is made. And even though we can't always stop what we're doing, if used with discretion, kids will not like - but at least understand - occasionally having to be put on hold. The same applies to subordinates whose commander's door is normally open but sometimes shut to take care of important business.

Another advantage of active listening is that it allows children to solve their own problems. Sometimes a young child can get so upset that it seems they are going to bust, usually because they don't know what to do next.

Listening, asking non-judgmental questions, and acknowledging feelings is often times all that's needed to set their world right.

Let them work it out. Gen. George Patton once said, "Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity." Instead of solving our children's problems, my wife and I encourage them to resolve "crises" on their own.

When our kids are fighting, we first ask several questions to help draw out the pertinent facts. Then we'll say, "This looks like a pretty tough problem to solve, but we know you can figure it out."

More times than not, they come up with a compromise solution that fits everybody's needs while avoiding the perception of mommy or daddy picking sides. And they practice valuable problem solving skills at the same time.

I take the same approach with my flight commanders. Instead of dictating solutions to squadron challenges, I ask them to make joint recommendations. Having all of them participate in the problem solving ensures squadron buy-in when implementing difficult decisions.

I hope this short list demonstrates how our families can serve as some of the best leadership laboratories anywhere.