What do wartime generals and effective parents have in common?

They can both help us to become better leaders by letting go of control and instead setting expectations.

The Family Business

As we try to tackle issues of income inequality, it’s increasingly recognized that parenting really is a full time job, with all the hard work and specialist skills that involves. What we’re slower to recognize is that parents are a group of professionals we can all learn from.

Delving into a description of parenting may seem like teaching some of you to suck eggs, but for others – those without children – this is a world of mystery. And that balance between the risk of becoming patronizing and the risk of not giving enough information or guidance is one that parents face every day.

You’re under pressure from the kids to provide attention and cater to their physical needs, a pressure that becomes less constant but no less real as they grow up. At the same time, you’re under pressure from yourself to make sure that they’re safe, happy and learning to deal with the world in appropriate ways. With every ounce of energy going into this balancing act, it’s easy to take shortcuts, and that’s the point at which parenting becomes controlling.

It’s easier to say “you can’t go to that place” than to teach your child to play safely in a less secure environment. It’s easier to discourage their friendship with a child whose influence you don’t like than it is to balance that influence or discuss why their behavior is a problem. It’s emotionally easier to keep micromanaging a child’s behavior, pointing out every time things might go wrong, than to let go and let them take risks, risks that might hurt them but that will let them grow. Because you aren’t just risking your child’s health and happiness – you’re risking your own feelings too.

The more you control a child, the less they get to develop their own courage, judgement, and initiative. And if you don’t notice the point at which children outgrow old restrictions then you risk creating the resentment that is the hallmark of the sulking teenager, with all the sour relationships and wasted emotional energy that entails.

Effective parenting involves setting boundaries, explaining why they exist, and then trusting children to respond to those boundaries. It means actively involving kids in their lives, through making them part of conversations about what to do at the weekend, or through giving them chores around the house, making them part of the house-keeping team. It means giving them as much initiative as they can cope with at their age.

Think back to when you were a kid. Did you like it when your parents were controlling? Or did you prefer to be trusted? Now think about how it feels, as an adult, to be controlled and not to be trusted.

That feeling is why we should learn from effective parents. Set boundaries in the workplace instead of micromanaging. Let employees take risks. Involved them in decision making.

Don’t control.

Purpose and Doctrine

How do you let go of control without causing chaos? How do you guide without micro-managing?

Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking has made an excellent argument for adopting the military approach of providing purpose and doctrine.

In war, it’s impossible for leaders to control what is happening on the ground. Enemy action and unforeseen accidents mean that troops have to be able to adapt. For these adaptations to be effective they have to follow the best steps towards victory. And so troops are provided with purpose and doctrine.

Purpose is the aim of the battle, campaign, or even war. For a business, it is the goals, both long and short term. So set targets and make sure to share them. If soldiers know what the aim of the fighting is then they will be better equipped to make decisions that serve that purpose. If employees know your goals then they will be better able to keep working towards them.

Doctrine is a set of guidelines for achieving that purpose. It could be anything from Henry V’s adoption of defensive archery formations to the way a modern war fleet is structured. Doctrine doesn’t tell soldiers what decisions to make, but it tells them how to make those decisions.

The equivalent of doctrine in most organizations will be procedures and other guidance documents. Badly written and inflexible procedures can be controlling and counter-productive. They rigidly define every last minute detail of a task, leaving no initiative to adapt to circumstances.

Good procedures instead provide a doctrine. They leave employees free to make decisions appropriate to their skills and level of authority. They let them make use of the knowledge they have developed. They don’t force them to repeatedly contact a harassed customer in order to achieve a mythical image of customer service.

Letting Go is Hard

It’s hard for a parent to let go and trust their children to behave safely. It’s hard for a general to put his carefully shaped strategy in the hands of subordinates. It’s hard for a manager to leave others to make decisions that they know they could make.

But ultimately, letting go of control, replacing it with purpose and doctrine, will lead to happier and more effective employees.