As I wrote in the introduction to this blog, I truly believe that the practice of leadership has certain aspects that are universal in application, even toward the seemingly disparate jobs of father and military officer.  I often ponder how I can leverage and mutually reinforce these two leadership roles, without treating my children like subordinates or my subordinates like children.  Fortunately, I have two great exemplars in this pursuit.  My father and brother-in-law (both of them fellow naval officers) managed to set and enforce high standards both at work and at home, and without the use of a boatswain pipe like Georg von Trapp.

So here are some specific examples of how each role has influence the other.   This is certainly not an exhaustive list.  I expect that future posts will build and expand on this concept.

What the military has taught me about being a parent:

Start with the end in mind.   A classic from Stephen Covey.  Like one of my mentors often said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get your there. “  Military planning efforts, whether for a theater campaign or one-time airstrike, focus first on the objectives and end states, to ensure that all subsequent decisions about courses of action, assigned tasks, and prioritization of resources will ultimately support the attainment of the desired goal.  The same principles apply to parenting.  What kind of adults do I want  my children to grow up to be?  What values and traits do I hope to instill?  What types of decisions do I want them to make even when I’m not around?

It’s not a popularity contest.   “Better to be respected than liked” is an adage I learned as a young naval officer.  This doesn’t mean “go out of your way to piss people off”  but leadership involves getting people to do things they don’t want to do. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t need a leader) It entails motivating people to perform beyond what they may believe possible of themselves.  This is challenging.  It is much easier to accept standards that subordinates think are reasonable and comfortable, and let those become the default setting for expected behavior.  As a parent, I must fight similar temptations to be the best friend instead of the leader.  I have to ensure I consistently give my children what they need instead of regularly allowing what they want.

Mistakes are the best teachers.  In a military that has increasingly become “zero-defect” in terms of expectations, it is important to remember that mistakes are a necessary facet of learning.  Some of my best commanding officers gave me the latitude to make mistakes, knowing that was the only way I was going to gain experience and confidence.  I think the same applies to raising children. This doesn’t mean as a military leader or as a parent, that I shrug my shoulders and say, “mistakes happen.” But I have to be able to tell the difference between a premeditated breach of the rules and a well-intentioned mistake.  If it’s the former, I provide appropriate discipline.  If the latter then I counsel and assist in dissecting the incident for lessons to learn.  With regards to parenting, I have much to learn.  Too often I am quick to jump in and help my children do something “perfectly”, instead of giving them the space to try, fail, and then try again. The important thing, whether it’s in the ready room or the living room, is for me to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable admitting to mistakes and learning from them.   

What parenting has taught me about being a military leader:

Embrace the chaos.  I like order and organization.  It’s one of the many reasons I was attracted to a career in the military.  And my time in the military has reinforced that need for order.   Although being organized serves me well both as an officer and as a parent (all praise to checklists and routines), I also have to be able to thrive in a chaotic environment.  More than anything, being a father of four has taught me how to cope with noise and entropy: The near-constant chatter at the dinner table after a long day at work.  The clamor of conflicting demands from multiple sources. The minefield of a carpet strewn with legos and dolls.  All of this will serve me well at work, where I must separate the signal from the noise and focus on what’s truly important.     

-Be Patient.  I’ve never been a patient person, and life in the military has not changed that much. We tend to have a bias towards action.  We loathe inaction. And yet parenting requires the patience of Gandhi.  As we watch our child slowly putting on his shoes, we must fight the urge to put them on for him.   As we help with math homework, we must let them reach the right answer on their own.  At home and at work, my efforts won’t always yield immediate results.  I have to let things develop. 

-It’s not about me.  When I was a brand-new father, a colleague (himself a father of seven) told me that parenting had taught him just how selfish a person he could be.  I am reminded of that marvelous statement every time I find myself chafing at the tedium of getting the baby back to sleep or listening to one more Wiggles song.  (Ah, the irony of being annoyed by my children while writing my blog about fatherhood….)  Parenting is the ultimate example of servant leadership, but my role as a naval officer requires the same selflessness.  I must remember that my energies should always be focused towards ensuring my Sailors have the resources they need to accomplish the mission and then recognizing their tireless efforts.   Or as Lao-tzu wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware he exists…The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.  When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” [1]


[1] Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, trans. Steven Mitchell (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988)

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