Being a Leader is Like being a Parent

“Sometimes it seems like my employees test the limits to see what I’ll do just like my kids. I want my employees to grow and develop in their careers without micromanaging. But, when they don’t follow through on tasks, I find myself reminding them like I remind my kids to do their chores. In many ways, leadership is like parenting.”

During a recent leadership coaching session, my client made the above comments about one of his employees.

leadership-work-cultureThe employee has the skills and capability to do her job but has difficulty with follow-through. She often misses deadlines and projects get delayed. The employee is well-liked, however, her co-workers are complaining lately when she doesn’t finish her portion of work, which then puts them behind in completing their portion of the project.

Picking up the Pieces

In order to keep the project going, the leader will often pick up the work the employee is falling behind on. Not only is the extra work taking a toll on the leader, he’s also starting to feel resentful. 

Other employees are also starting to complain that the employee isn’t held to the same standards and expectations as this employee. 

Can you relate to this leader’s dilemma?

If you’re a parent, can you relate to doing things for your kids in order to prevent a negative consequence? 

In order to stop the cycle of over-functioning for under-functioning employees (and children), start with self-awareness and get clear on who owns the problem. 

Having clarity about who owns the problem will guide you in what action to take and in setting clear expectations as a parent would do to equip their child to learn responsibility.  

Define who owns the problem?

Just like parents who take on problems that are their children’s responsibility, leaders can fall into the same rescuer role. In both scenarios, children and employees alike miss out on opportunities to learn from mistakes and develop critical life and work skills. 

Use the following questions when you’re not sure if an employee’s problem is your problem or the employee’s problem. 

These questions will provide self-awareness and clarity on your role as a leader to create the conditions for your employees to grow and keep you from micromanaging. 

When leaders own the problem

  1. Have I been clear about expectations?
  2. Have I provided the needed training for the employee to do his/her job?
  3. Are other people negatively affected by the employee’s performance or behavior?
  4. Am I asking the employee to do tasks outside of his/her skill set?
  5. Have I outlined what will happen if the poor performance/behaviors continue?
  6. Have I followed through with what I said I’d do if the poor performance/behavior doesn’t improve?

Your leadership responsibility

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you own the problem. 

As a leader it’s your responsibility to monitor and manage both the performance and behavior of your employees. 

While your employee is responsible for his/her behavior and choices, you are responsible to take action when problem performance or behavior occurs.

When the employee owns the problem

  1. Has the poor employee performance/behavior continued after I addressed it?
  2. Has the employee attended training/coaching I provided to improve?
  3. Do I continue to receive complaints about the employee’s performance/ behavior after he/she received training or coaching?
  4. Does the employee blame others for his/her problems? 
  5. Was there improvement after the employee became aware of the consequences?
  6. If the employee did improve, has the improved performance/behavior continued over time? 

If the answers to any of the above questions are yes, the employee owns the problem. 

While leaders set the tone of the culture and, ideally, model healthy behaviors, it’s ultimately up to the employee to take responsibility for their performance and behavior. 

Leadership, like parenting, is more of an art than a science. 

At the heart of effective parenting and leadership is self-awareness. The self-awareness of how your actions and behavior influence those around you, whether your children or your employees.  

As Virginia Satire said, “What lingers from the parent’s individual past, unresolved or incomplete, often becomes part of her or his irrational parenting.” 

If there’s anything I’ve learned in thirty years as a psychiatric nurse and licensed family therapist, it’s that when parents and leaders are willing to become more self-aware and take ownership of how their behavior affects others, they empower instead of control. 

Heightened self-awareness allows them to address their own “stuff” (hurts, wounds, or scars from their upbringing), and they’re more likely to bring out the best in others, and their behavior matches what they say.

Changing the Pattern

Back to my client who was over-functioning, taking on responsibility for his under-functioning employee. 

Before he addressed the employee’s pattern of missed deadlines, he acknowledged how unknowingly he had been contributing to the problem. 

By completing tasks the employee wasn’t doing, the leader was giving a mixed message of,  “Be responsible, but you really don’t have to be responsible because I’ll pick up after you.” 

He also realized that by doing this, he had more insight into the complaints from other employees when the underperforming employee wasn’t being held to the same standards as they were.  

The leader realized he had fallen into the rescuer role with the under-performing employee.

Growing up, the leader was in the role of a rescuer when his dad was drunk. In his upbringing, he smoothed over the family tension by becoming a people-pleaser and caretaker. 

Having this self-awareness allowed him to recognize what part of the issue with the under-performing employee was his problem and what part was the employees.

Before you take action when one of your employees is underperforming or exhibiting disruptive behavior, get clear on who owns the problem. Gain self-awareness about your own behaviors and their impact on others. 

When you’re clear on who owns the problem, you will be more likely to stay connected with clear expectations and follow-through. Just as a parent would do to equip their child to grow and ultimately succeed in life and work.  

Are you thinking you’re over-functioning for one of your under-functioning employees? 

Sometimes there’s a fine line between who owns a problem – you as the leader or the employee. 

Before jumping in to rescue, contact Bonnie to get clarity on who owns the problem and increase your self-awareness by identifying your Workplace Family Factor®.  to get clarity about who owns the problem. 


About the author 

Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT works with executive leaders who want to gain self-awareness about the impact of their words and actions and up-level their interpersonal skills. 

Drawing from decades as a psychiatric nurse and licensed family therapist, Bonnie brings a unique perspective to equip executive leaders with the roadmap to emotional intelligence that brings teams together. 

Bonnie’s leadership Turnaround coaching program has an 82% success rate in guiding leaders to replace abrasive behavior with tact, empathy, and consideration of others. The end result is a happy, healthy, and profitable workplace…sooner vs. later.