Recently, I was asked an interesting question during one of the leadership sessions I was conducting with a client:
“How can we as leaders set a good example for our children if we spend a lot of time away from them?”
Admittedly, the question caught me a little off-guard. Usually, questions about leadership centre on things like employee engagement, company culture, emotional intelligence, and so on. It was a welcome change of pace to be thrown a curve ball.
As I pondered the question, I thought about how the founding ambition that led to the creation of Leaderonomics was – ultimately – geared towards creating a better world for our children.
After all, they hold the keys to our collective future, and so investing as much as we can into developing young people seems to me the greatest legacy we can leave behind. With luck, that investment will be paid forward as each new generation comes along.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many fellow parents in leadership roles that demand much of their time. Different people deal with the struggle in ways that make the most sense to them. Personally, I shy away from ‘advising’ people on how to live their personal lives – after all, what works for one person might not work for the next. Who am I to judge?
Related: The Power of Role Models: Making Sense of Personalities
Show, don’t tell
In my own case, I see parenting as a multi-faceted role that, in a nutshell, is about showing our children how to live life well. As most parents will know, we talk so much to our children about rules – why they should do this, why they should stop that – but we all know that talking about a good example is on the micro-level.
On the macro-level is something more obvious: how we are behaving as parents. What do we do with our lives that our children can emulate and benefit from in their own growth?
So many of us feel that pang of guilt when we think we should be spending more time with our loved ones, and when I was asked the question on leadership and parenting, I could see that pang radiating, as if to say, “I try my best, but it never feels like it’s good enough.”
In my view – and this is just my opinion – it is important to spend quality time with our families, with our growing children. That said, I feel like it’s more important that we focus not on how much time we spend with our children, but on the quality of the example we show.
Our children will grow up to know that what they do in the world matters, and therefore to have a sense of duty and purpose in life is vital. By spending time with our children, we show them that family is important, but it’s through our work that we show them the power of change that arises through our commitment to serving others.
I recall speaking to a friend of mine some years ago, whom I recently met up with in Cambodia. He had retired early from a lucrative career and decided to embark on building a social initiative based in Cambodia that would demand more of his time, not less, and provide less income rather than more.
Initially, I thought he wanted to leave his high-pressured job to spend more time with his own family. When I asked him why he took up a new role that paid far less, demanded more of his time, and required him to relocate to a less developed country, he said this:
“My kids are at an age where they are starting to understand what I do, and they seem proud of that. I go to work, make money, and provide for my family. But I’ve always had a passion for doing some real good in the world beyond my front door, to make a real difference in the lives of others. I talked about it often enough over the years, but I don’t want my kids to grow up just talking about how to change the world for the better – I want them to get out there and do it.”
Check out: Parenting: A Form of Servant Leadership
What message are you sending to your children?
When I pressed him on this concern I had about time spent with children, he replied, “It’s a worry we all have as parents. Am I spending enough time with them? I make sure to spend as much time as I can with my family and let them know that they are the most important people in the world to me.
“They’ll also hopefully understand one day, through watching me, that there’s time for family and there’s time for putting to good use the knowledge, skills and talents we’ve been gifted as a way of giving something back.”
This struck me, because many people I’ve spoken to over the years have viewed their work as an obstacle to the ‘more important’ things in life, especially time spent with family. But I realised then that what we do actually serves as a powerful example to our children.
It shows them how we choose to spend the rest of our time, what our values are, and how we align them with our skills and knowledge to contribute to our community and wider society.
Leaderonomers bringing the story of King Arthur and Merlin to life at the Leaderonomics Kids Leadership Camp in May 2019.
At Leaderonomics, we talk about the value of building communities of love – but the values we talk about aren’t left for everyone else to live… We aim to show the power of such values by espousing them ourselves.
I’m convinced that the commitment, care, love and support we show to the young people who come to our leadership camps and through the work we do each week in more than 100 schools across Malaysia, inspire them just as much as the fun they have, the friendships they build, and the lifelong lessons they learn.
The American novelist James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
To set a good example for our children is to be exactly that – a good example. How we behave, treat others, conduct ourselves under pressure, handle criticism, and show care, love and kindness…all of this and more is what children pay attention to, not the clock on the wall.
As leaders, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is not “Am I spending enough time with my kids?” but rather, “Am I setting the right example for my kids that they see the kind of life they’d want to live when they’re older?”
I am not saying we do not need to spend more time with our families. We do need time to create strong, familial bonds and to be a strong family unit, but underlying it is how we live our lives. Are we ourselves giving, sharing, caring, and role-modelling the life we hope our children live?
To finish on a personal note to all the fellow parents reading this, I’d say the best example we can begin to set for our children is one of self-compassion, acceptance of our imperfections, and showing that it’s okay to make mistakes – in the end what truly counts is that we try our best with our hearts in the right place.