You Aren’t the Parent of Your Team

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the asinine things I heard a well-known business leader say.

I recently attended an event where a famous American businessman was interviewed in front of an audience. At one point the conversation turned toward the role of a leader in creating and shaping effective teams. The metaphor he used for leadership — and the extent to which he drilled down on it — made my jaw hit the floor.

He equated leading teams with being a parent. Teams are filled with rowdy kids who need someone to step in, make rules, show them where to go, and keep them in line. He said, “Sometimes you need to be the parent and step in. It’s not about being their friend.” While I agree that we don’t necessarily need to be friends to work well together the idea that your job as a leader is to somehow act as my parent is… bleh.

It made me realize that even in the tech world (where we like to think companies are working in cool ways) there are huge barriers to new ways of thinking about work. Using parenthood as a metaphor for leading teams is rooted in a mindset where the world is largely static and that cumulative years of experience is the best source of knowledge for making decisions. That world doesn’t exist any longer. You don’t know best because you’ve been around the longest. Kids look to parents to make decisions for them but your manager is not your mother.

My guess is that this executive has worked on teams where he’s not the top ranking person in the room — does he revert to a childlike mindset in those situations and look up to the leader of the group as a parent? Probably not.

Teams need to be filled with competent, caring, motivated, and self-leading adults. Not carefree and wild children who need the guiding hand of someone who “knows better.” Static metaphors like parenthood need to be phased out as we develop a more nuanced and fluid mental model of what it means to work on or with teams.