Different strokes for different folks! 4 Lessons in Family Leadership

“I will ask you if I need your help” says my 23 year old son.  “Don’t tell me what I need to do” says my wife.

I have been receiving repeated reminders about the way I need to behave with members of my family.  Have I started to behave that way?  I doubt if I have been consistent enough.  Have I learnt something from this? Yes of course!  The lessons I learnt as I grew in my role as a parent and a husband were invaluable, especially so in the area of ‘family leadership’.  Let me see if I can put these in context.

Lessons on parenting

Is there a pattern in which children grow or develop?  I could definitely observe and identify a few as I grew as a parent with my son.

1.1 High on motivation – Low on skill (infancy – teens)

Up until his teens he always used to wait for some direction from me.  He never lacked in motivation but wanted to know what to do, how to do and expected me to guide him every step of the way.  He always wanted validation whether what he was doing was right.  Every positive reinforcement was absorbed with great enthusiasm which propelled him to action.  I really had to put a lot of effort to keep up with his energy and enthusiasm.

2.1 Which style worked well? – Regulate


When kids are young, in the normal circumstances they have abundant energy, however not the necessary skill set to wade through the complexities of life.  This is the time when you as a parent needs to use the ‘regulating’ style as I wish to call it.  Providing the kid with necessary direction about the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ to do things.  It also demands from you that you closely monitor all actions lest they hurt themselves in the process.  I am not suggesting that there will be no hurt whatsoever, but at least minimize the possibility as a parent.  When you use this style of parenting, the child feels confident and starts to pick up the skills required along the way.  You sure would have seen young kids at the kindergarten packed with so much of energy and enthusiasm to follow their teacher.  They are ever smiling, laughing and screaming in excitement.  This is also the stage where they would demand a lot of attention.  As a parent, some of you would have experienced the demands it puts on your time and energy.  Important stage nevertheless for the parent to regulate and guide in the child’s growth.

1.2 Low on Motivation and Few Skills – (Teens – Twenties)

I observed that in his teens, my son used to have longer and frequent periods of low; was irritable; edgy and was looking to break free.  He didn’t anymore like the ‘helicopter parenting’ approach.  Wanted a little space for himself.  This was also a phase in his life where though he felt he had the necessary skill set to tackle the vagaries of life, he was unsure to go the whole hog in many of his pursuits.  This was also the time when the frequency of his  failures increased.  He tried to do many things on his own and had to find out the hard way that he didn’t have enough skill sets to succeed all of the time.  This was the period he was also trying to establish his identity in the social circles of his high school.  He had to deal with different types – from bullies to snobs; from the aggressor to the passive mate; being part of school gangs and the rivalries; from having a girlfriend and not having any; from a teacher who seemed more like a dictator than a friend.

During this period I realized that though he didn’t want to be spoon fed, he was looking for guidance from time to time.  His mind was in constant conflict for should he ‘break free’ and be ‘independent’ or does he still require ‘support’.  He was looking for answers when he was ‘stuck’ but didn’t want to be seen as weak; who needed his parents help all the time.  His actions immediately after returning from school almost always was a giveaway about what probably would have transpired in school that day.  If something bothered him, it used to be quite evident in his mannerisms.  Most often visible when he showed a sense of despair.

2.2  Which style worked well? – Guide


When your teenager gets stuck, he would rarely come seeking for help.  It is difficult during this stage as he believes that he can handle all of his life situations on his own.  He might not have all the skill sets though to handle them on his own.  This is also the stage where they will venture out, experiment, fall, fail more and feel low on motivation.  He wouldn’t like you to hover around with concern all the time.  Would constantly cry for space.  What then should you do?

This is the time to do some coaching or ‘guidance’.  Be a guide who is by the side and ready to help when the situation demands.  Be willing to listen a lot and speak only when required or asked.  Parents will need a lot of empathy.  Remember, you have been through that stage yourselves and had certain expectations from your parents.  Do the same.  This is also the time to keep directing your teenagers attention to all the things he is doing right.  Use a lot of positive reinforcement.  Being overly critical is going to be counterproductive.  As a guide, always “seek first to understand then to be understood”.  Share best practices from your experience and let the teenager make his choice.  This is the time your teenager must feel responsible and learn to make his choice.  You be the ‘guide’ who can provide all the information; like a map which allows the traveler to decide his path.  That’s probably why we call people who helped us through our difficult phases in life as our “friend, philosopher and guide”

1.3 Mood swings in motivation, High Skills

I remember my early days of being in my marriage, we used to have frequent bouts of moods swings.  Sometimes we felt low and other felt high.  What were the reasons, I wondered?  Tiffs and arguments were often the case.  There were frequent turf wars not just between us but with other elders in the family.  We hated their interference into our lives.  We were grown up and wanted to be treated like one by our parents and elders in the family.  However, in the first few years of our marriage, arguments between us were more as a result of the lack of mutual respect in relationship.  Once you are over with the heady feelings of romance, life gets to the regular grind and that’s when you start to demand your space and at the same time look for a more collaborative mode of living and working the relationship. We are called ‘life partners’ after all. We didn’t like to be told ‘what to do’; more so ‘how to do’.  We took it as an insult to our maturity.  Why would anyone tell us how to go about our life?  Come on, we are married damn it and no longer kids, used to be our common complaints with our respective parents.  No matter how much we complained about this, their interference didn’t stop.  They constantly tried to get at us through their kids i.e, us.  It led to more complications in our marriage and frequent outbursts.  “Don’t just succumb to her pressures, do your own thing.  You are grown up after all” used to be the regular advice.  “Why should you ask or consult her before you do anything?”  Aren’t you capable of taking your own decisions?

I was stupid enough to believe in those words, as I myself was looking for respect in the relationship as much as my wife did. We used to use ‘violence’ and ‘silence’ as methods to get at each other.  Phew! The first few years were tumultuous to say the least.  The funny part was that we got married after we fell mad in love with each other and courted for more than a year.

Both of us started to become moody and performed the family chores only when we ‘felt’ like or were motivated.  Our levels of motivation were variable to say the least.  Both of us started to rebel with our parents and family and used to feel edgy and uncomfortable in their presence.

2.3 The style that works – being a ‘buddy’


The cry of people who have experience and skill sets is that we give them the respect they deserve.  We recognize that they have the capability and the necessary attitude to get things done on their own.  They also are looking for recognition.  Being recognized for their experience.  Parents and elders typically fall under this category of people.  All they are asking I come to realize is ‘respect’ and ‘recognition’ for the hard years they have put in.  They don’t want to decide for you but looking for you to ‘consult’ with them on important decision and take their opinion at the least.  They want to feel the part.  They are not yet comfortable with the idea that you have grown up and started to make your own decisions.  They don’t want the partnership to be broken abruptly.  Similarly, your spouse is not always wanting to be a decision maker.  All she might be asking is for ‘inclusion’ and ‘consultation’ before taking important decisions which impact the partnership and your life together.  I found that whenever, I discussed and brainstormed with my wife about certain decisions I wanted to make, not only did I get some valuable suggestions but also got her ‘full backing’.

It worked, when I started to transact with her as I would with my close ‘buddy’.  In fact our buddies are the ones on whom we place our ‘trust’, whom we ‘consult’ and ‘share’ our stories freely and with whom we are comfortably vulnerable.

Isn’t it the cry of senior members of your team in the organization as well?  All they are looking for is ‘respect’, ‘involvement’, ‘recognition’ and ‘reward’ for their experience and seniority.

Be a ‘buddy’; listen as a buddy, talk like you would to your best buddy, share, argue, learn, seek help and all that you would normally do with your bud and see the difference.

1.4 High on motivation and high on skill

“Don’t tell me what to do” says my wife each time I try to play the parent with her.  It was only an indicator that I needed to respect her vast experience and high skill set and let her be.  You needn’t do much here, do you?

2.4 Empower is the style which works best


When you are aware that the person who you are dealing with has vast experience, in our case our partnership of over 25 years, then you don’t need to worry much.  Both have gone through the ups and downs of life and learnt the hard lessons.  Have gained much experience and skill set along the way to have come this far.

I realized that the best way is to clearly agree on our roles and let each other be with the ‘trust’ that each one is experienced and skilled enough to deal with any given situation.  It’s only when you start to become a parent in the relationship that we end up in conflict.  So ‘Empower’!

What I realized over the years, as in the case of organizational teams, family leadership also demands from you the use of appropriate styles based on who you transact with.

More often we get stuck using one to at the most two styles and lead ourselves into constant conflict.  I have found that people in family leadership roles, end up oscillating between two styles – ‘regulate’ or ‘empower’ and fail to realize that there are middle ground styles which are equally useful and powerful to lead.

“Different strokes for different folks”!

What’s your “Family Leadership” style?

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