A couple months ago, I put forth five lessons about leadership and life that I’ve taken away from over two decades as Gabriella’s dad. As I noted then, my experience at a mission-based organization and my passion for leadership led me to consider how parenting a child with multiple disabilities made me a better leader.
Today I offer five more lessons:
- Cherish Routines: Over the past 22 years, Gabriella and I have shared a bedtime ritual that we both look forward to, including reading stories, saying prayers and whistling songs. It can be depressing that the specific stories or songs have gone unchanged since early childhood, but the familiarity brings comfort to both of us. We’ve also had to adapt; for example, when she was younger I snuggled her in a rocking-chair, but today at ninety pounds she lies in her bed and I hold her hand.
The very idea of business routines, from staff meetings to planning and budgeting, raises the specter of tedium and bureaucracy, but management experts see many benefits. They create structure and build good habits. Routines also create opportunities to bring teams together, to engender fresh thinking, and even to have fun. Sometimes this results from the mindset the leader evinces, sometimes from making an unexpected change. Once I transformed a meeting about annuities by incorporating Lollapalooza-style music. Soon that got tired, too, and we had to mix things up again.
- Keep Moving Forward: It’s natural to get paralyzed by bad news. So many setbacks have stopped us cold over the years, from the blurring of Gabriella’s pupils to the growing bump on her skull, but she depends on us to keep advancing every single day. We contribute in different ways: Lisa is pragmatic and action-oriented on medical treatments, while I remain optimistic and help push us through the endless waits and gloomy outlooks. Gabriella models this theme herself, as she loves to be in continual motion.
The day-to-day of the work-world offers many obstacles to progress. Lost clients, budget overages, unexpected twists in a career – each can slow us down, but they don’t have to make us stop. It’s important to understand why setbacks occur, but the post-audit should be swift, with accountability but minimal finger-pointing. Then we move ahead once more, with an action orientation and a sense of optimism.
- Err on the Side of Patience: As my family would readily admit, I’ve never been a patient person. But life with a child like Gabriella can require great endurance. We’re forever waiting for test results, waiting for dismissal from the hospital, waiting for clarity about what’s going on. The famous prayer asks for the serenity to accept those things we cannot change, and it’s those unchangeable things that require the most patience.
It’s easy to be impulsive at work, wanting to respond to events or people. The demand for urgency is perennially high, but acting without thinking, or more so without listening, can cause real damage. I’ve attempted to balance acting swiftly and bringing a thought process appropriate to the situation. My rule of thumb is: the bigger and more complex the problem, the more brainpower, the more different perspectives, and often the more time, are necessary. While that sounds obvious, it’s not always the way events unfold.
- Empathy is Felt more than Thought: Not long ago, I posted about what it would be like to be Gabriella. While the challenges I described were familiar because they happen regularly, I had never considered them from her perspective. Writing that entry forced me to think about her feelings, but it also offered insights about her very different, much more innocent, way of responding to each.
We’ve all heard that we should seek to understand the perspectives of other people in the workplace by “putting ourselves in their shoes”. I always thought it sounded simple enough: consider the situations they face and picture myself facing the same challenges. I realize now how much harder it is to measure how they might have felt, and why their responses might differ from my own.
- Sometimes it’s Better to Receive: People are drawn to Gabriella, and they exhibit this attraction in different ways, with affection and smiles, and with gifts, as happened one evening on the boardwalk. A small girl’s generosity had a profound impact on our family.
As I progressed in my career, I found that colleagues and friends increasingly looked to me more for advice, whether on technical matters or about their careers. This was a great compliment, and I set aside time for coaching. To my own detriment, I was not so quick to seek guidance from others. (Who knows? Maybe I thought I knew all I needed to know.) When I announced my retirement, I was approached by a colleague I barely knew who offered his help in getting my new writing life off the ground. He’s become a good friend and I regularly draw on his wisdom. We’re all forever learning, and some of us could be a little more open to the advice of others.