Bringing the science of leadership to the art of parenting

A new book dissects the challenge of working parents looking for greater harmony, connection, and impact in all parts of life.

Parents in today’s fast-paced disorienting world can easily lose track of who they are and what really matters most. But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to Wharton professor Stew Friedman and co-author Alyssa Westring. They say it is possible for parents to harness the powerful science of leadership in order to thrive in all aspects of their lives.

Penn Today sat down with authors for a Q&A to discuss their book, “Parents Who Lead.”

Stewart Friedman and Alyssa Westring
Authors of “Parents Who Lead” Stewart Friedman and Alyssa Westring

What does it mean to be a parent who leads?

Stewart Friedman: Leadership is about mobilizing people toward valued goals, building trust and inspiring them to move with you to a better future. It starts with identifying a compelling vision of a shared future, rooted in core values. Leaders do that in organizations of all kinds, including families. 

Alyssa Westring: Being a parent who leads means thinking and acting like a leader, both in terms of how you raise your children and how you live your life. We have decades of research about what makes great leaders—this is about working parents putting it into practice.  

Why don’t enough working parents today think of themselves as leaders?

Friedman: Parents naturally put leadership skills into practice all the time, in trying to motivate children to do any given task at home or at school, for example, or to help them overcome fears of trying something new. But they tend not to think of their roles in these terms, partly because they’ve not been shown how to lead, how to articulate their values and vision, how to connect meaningfully with people who matter most to them, and how to innovate to better align what they care about with what they do. Parents may also believe that they should leave their work, and all its associated skills, at work and cordon off their life at home with their children. But we’ve found that leadership skills, typically seen as related only to work and other organizations, are applicable at home, when used wisely.

Westring: As busy parents, we often default to acting like micromanagers, focusing our attention on scheduling, to-do lists, and making sure nothing falls through the cracks. Parents today often don’t think of themselves as leaders because it’s hard to take a step back from the day-to-day, to shift our mindset and behaviors from reactive to proactive like the best leaders do. 

How can the science of leadership inform and improve one’s role as a modern parent, both at home and in the workplace?

Friedman:  There are fundamentals about leadership that have been well-established by researchers that can be used by parents to improve their performance as leaders for their whole lives. For instance, we know that effective leaders are clear about their values and what matters, have a vision of where they’re headed and why, connect with people to build trust and gain support, and continually experiment to make things better for themselves and others. We’ve found that parents can apply these leadership skills also for improved performance wherever they are, including and especially in their families. 

Westring: Researchers, including us, have been studying what makes effective leaders for decades. The science of what it takes to become a great leader is clear. We’ve learned that by bringing this science to parents, they can become more effective in all parts of life. They feel like they are spending time and energy in the ways that more closely match their values. As a result, they feel more effective, less guilty, and less stressed at work and at home.  

How do your perspectives as a boomer grandfather and millennial mom supplement one another? 

Friedman: As a senior citizen, father of three millennials, and grandparent, and someone who’s studied the thrills and chills of how work and the rest of life intersect for more than three decades, I bring a long-term view of how far we’ve come and what it takes to achieve meaningful change. Many more women are able to pursue careers previously only open to men and to ascend to the highest levels, compared to when I started out. And many more men are committed to being fully engaged fathers, who want paternity leave and equal presence in their children’s lives. Yet I see how difficult it remains today, and with our archaic cultural norms and outmoded laws about family leave, to raise children while pursuing fulfilling work. I know we have to pursue change at the societal level, in our organizations and in our communities, and in our families.

Westring: As a mom of an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, I’m in the thick of it. I’m living my research in real-time, using the tools we create to grow as a parent, partner, and professor. I feel the same stress and guilt as the parents we’re trying to help—so I feel like I can connect my research to the real experiences of parents today.  

What has your research shown about the importance of aligning one’s personal values with one’s career goals?  

Friedman: To parent as a leader is to have the courage to know your values and vision for your life as a whole and to strive to enact them, to care about your people—partner, children, colleagues, subordinates, bosses, caregivers, friends, extended family—and make it easy for them to share with you what they need, and to try new ways of doing things that move you closer to your vision while making things better for your people as you bring them along with you. It’s not about command and control. It’s about inspiring people to move, together, to a better place. 

Westring: Parenting as a leader means knowing what matters most to you and your family, making decisions based on those values, and working together to find greater compatibility between what you care about and how you spend your time and energy. Our research has shown that when parents think and act this way, they feel better and perform better in all parts of their lives—not just as parents, but in their careers, physical and mental health, and relationships. 

What are some workplace challenges you discuss in the book, and how do you hope to empower readers with your leadership approach?

Westring: In the U.S., decisions about the policies and practices affecting working parents lie primarily in the hands of organizations. For example, there is no federally mandated paid parental leave. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges working parents face is access to family-supportive policies. Even when policies like parental leave or flexible work schedules are ‘on the books,’ parents are often afraid that if they themselves, they’ll be at risk of losing their jobs or being taken off the promotion fast-track. In addition to advocating for policy change at the government-level, we empower readers to advocate for themselves and their careers in a way that works for their families and their organizations. We give parents the skills and confidence to undertake these daunting conversations, in ways that improve all parts of their lives.

Parents also feel a deep tension between wanting to be an ‘ideal employee’ who is fully committed at work and being their authentic selves, which often means placing a high value on being an engaged parent. They get stuck in a trade-off mentality, where it feels like they are being forced to choose between work and home. We help parents challenge this either/or mindset to uncover creative solutions for feeling more authentic and improving performance in all parts of life. While we know that some trade-offs are inevitable, we help parents realize that they have more power than they realize to make things better.   

What are some specific ways that working parents can be more intentional about family time? 

Friedman: The key word there is intentional. Being on autopilot, not thinking about what you value and what you envision for your future, can prevent you from achieving what you really want. You need to be deliberate. The first step is to know what you care about, what you and your parenting partner value, and that only happens when you think about it, talk about it, and then create a shared vision for your family based on what you jointly care about most. This takes commitment, and no small measure of courage, to be candid and clear about what matters. Then you talk with your children, in an age-appropriate way, about what they think about your values. Open discussions lead to creative ways for you all to express them and this not only brings you closer to each other, it’s a catalyst for smarter ways to live and work, to invest your energy and attention, your most precious asset as a leader.

Westring: A lot of parents worry about how to spend more time with their children. Yet research suggests that quality time is as important, if not more so, than quantity. So, we recommend that parents focus first on mindfully engaging with their children in the time they do have together.  Notice whether you’re replaying a frustrating scenario at work in your mind, or are you trying to multitask while your kids fight for your attention. Start by exploring ways to be more present in the time you do have together. And, as we’ve heard from the children of parents we work with, put away your phone. 

Why do you hope to debunk the myth of ‘balance’?

Friedman: The notion of balance implies that I lose and you—my family or my employer or my community—win, or the other way around. It implies a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. The four-way-win approach instead seeks wins for you and your key stakeholders—your parenting partner, children, coworkers, and others about whom you care. The good news is that it’s possible to achieve, but you do have to learn how and practice. It doesn’t happen by magic and no one’s going to give it to you. 

Westring: The idea of ‘balance’ may make people feel like there’s a right answer regarding how to spend your time and energy—like there’s some sort of ideal allocation of time and energy that we should all strive for. It can make people feel like a failure and we don’t need more guilt. So, we encourage people to find alignment or harmony in a way that works for them, rather than seeking out some popular version of what balance ‘should’ look like. 

How should new fathers advocate for themselves in the workplace?

Friedman:  If it’s about paternity leave, as with mom’s heading out on maternity leave, it’s best to start early in talking to all pertinent stakeholders about your desire to be the very best dad you can be, and how by doing so helps others at work in some way. Express your wish for a paternity leave but do so in a way that identifies how you see your taking this time as a benefit for your company. But it’s not going to be pretty if you think in terms of ‘what can you give to me, what can I take from you?’ That’s not only the wrong frame, but it’s one that is not likely to be productive because it doesn’t help bring others along with you toward your vision. This has to be about how you can, as a parent, be your most energized, engaged, committed self at work to meet the expectations and needs of others. You’re better able to meet these demands if you feel good about yourself as a dad, not resentful and drained. Develop a working partnership with people at work to try small, short-term experiments that work for you and for them, see what works, and then adjust as needed, and continually. Make things better for them, and for you.  Pitching a proposed change as a time-limited experiment—that may or may not work for both of you and that you’ll both evaluate to see if you both think it was a good idea—is a useful way to get buy-in.

When you consult with working moms, how do you help them create better boundaries, both psychological and physical?

Westring: As a working parent, it’s easy to feel like we are being pulled in all directions. As women, there’s added societal expectations to be ‘nice’ and ‘helpful’ and to ‘have it all.’ This leads to a pervasive feeling of guilt. So, just telling working moms that they should have better boundaries will never work—it’s just another thing to feel guilty about. Instead, we start with values. As these moms make decisions about their time and energy day in and day out, we encourage them to use their values as a guiding force for making decisions instead of the inner monologue that tells us how we should be acting. Better boundaries are often the result of doing this, but they aren’t the end goal in and of themselves. 

Why do you say that your leadership approach, rooted in values, is what parents need to meet the challenges of being a working mother or father in our current social, cultural, and political climate?

Friedman: We are in an age when membership in religious institutions is at an all-time low, technology allows us to work and be bombarded with stimuli 24/7, and millennials, perhaps most especially, are seeking greater meaning in their lives and work. They want to address urgent environmental issues, inequalities, and divisions, and find spiritual peace and inner renewal. Many working parents are yearning to find ways to fill this space themselves, rather than ascribing to the values of a particular religion or philosophy. They want to focus on their unique values, on core deeply held beliefs, and be guided by ethical and moral principles to help them steer their children in turbulent times. Our leadership approach starts and ends with values and helps parents strengthens the foundation on which their children stand.  

What are the key aspects of creating a stronger parenting partnership?

Westring: It’s so easy to operate on autopilot with our partners, to divide and conquer, to focus just on managing logistics. Many partners know they want to connect more deeply, they just aren’t sure what steps to take to make it happen. We provide tools that help them overcome that hurdle to talk about things like what their vision of the future looks like, what values they want to instill in their children, and what changes they’d like to see in how they live their lives together.  

What is the first thing anyone can do to begin parenting as a leader?

Friedman: The first step is to know what you care about. Everyone’s priorities are different. There’s no right answer, no one-size fits all. But you can’t expect others—your children or those in your work environment—to come along with you, if you don’t know where you’re going yourself, with your partner in parenting, and with others who matter.  The exercises in our book teach how to get started. 

Westring: An easy place to start is by thinking and talking about values. Whether on your own, with your parenting partner, and/or with your kids, if they’re old enough, come up with a list of about five values that are most important to each of you. For younger kids, you could ask them to describe ‘how we act in our family.’ With older kids, you could ask them to Google ‘list of values’ and rank their top five. By taking turns discussing your shared and unique values, you are doing what all great leaders do—clarifying what matters most. I started this with my own family when my kids were much younger. We created a Westring family flag with three age-appropriate values—kindness, fairness, fun—accompanied by drawings from the kids. We even made up a silly song to go with it. It laid the foundation for the much more nuanced conversations that we can have now that the kids are a bit older.

What types of conversations do you hope this book will inspire? 

Friedman: We no longer have a norm of a 9-to-5 workplace, home-made family dinners every evening, and weekends that are distinct from the work week and centered on religious worship. Our world has changed, and organizations need to adapt. We live in a world where both parents are working outside the home, but our children still need high-quality care—this is a societal imperative and not a problem of individual families alone. Our hope is that this will be seen less and less as a working women’s issue and increasingly as an issue for all working parents, for our whole society; something that must be addressed by organizations and government. Change starts with awareness, which is increasing, and with new models. But cultural change is a slog. I’m optimistic, though, based on changes I’ve seen and from what we’ve observed in our research and described in ‘Parents Who Lead’ about how parents can create change that is sustainable because it works for them, their children, their careers, and their world.  

Westring: We also hope that this book will empower people to have difficult but important conversations at work about who they are and what they really care about. We want leaders and managers to get comfortable having and facilitating these kinds of conversations – to make them commonplace. We hope it will inspire people to ask for what they need to find meaning, engagement, and productivity at work, whether that’s family-supportive policies, career development opportunities, or digital downtime. 

This is an excerpt from Wharton School Stewart Friedman and Penn alum Alyssa Westring’s new book “Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life” published in March 2020 by Harvard Business Review Press. 

Being a working parent is not easy. Most feel overwhelmed, isolated, out of control, reactive to the demands of others, and generally failing in one way or another. Working parents are pressed to achieve the perfect “work/life balance,” but this is a misguided aspiration because it’s impossible. And there is a better way. By seeing themselves as leaders, they can step back bit and assess their current reality – what and who matters most, in all parts of their lives – and find practical, creative ways to bring others along with them to a better tomorrow.  

Book cover for Parents Who Lead: The leadership approach you need to parent with purpose, fuel your career and create a richer life

Most of us, whether we realize it or not, adopt a trade-off mindset in thinking about the different facets of our lives. We assume we’re playing a zero-sum game, believing that gains in one area of life automatically come with losses to the other areas. And, of course, sometimes this is how it is. Working long, high-stress hours, as one obvious example, usually has a negative impact on everything else. If you’ve ever been snippy at the dinner table after a tough day at the office, you know what we mean. Similarly, hardships in our family lives don’t just magically disappear when we need to be present for our work responsibilities. 

Our research has shown, however, that it’s fruitful to adopt a more expansive attitude, in which trade-offs are not the default assumption. Instead, we show parents how to think and act like leaders. Leaders envision a compelling image of an achievable future and inspire others to join them in its pursuit, building trust along the way. Isn’t this what we aspire to do as parents? A crucial step toward being the leader you want to be at home and in all the parts of your life requires a fresh perspective on the connections among them and then undertaking innovative approaches to improve performance at work, at home, in the community, and for yourself (mind, body, and spirit). Instead of dreaming about balance, which implies sacrifice in one part for success in another, we show how to aim for “four-way wins.” These are changes (usually quite small and therefore doable) intentionally designed to produce better results for stakeholders in all domains, which makes such experiments more sustainable because they’re supported by all.   

It sounds like a tall order, but the possibility of such wins is there. But we first have to look for them if we’re going to be able to pursue them and produce harmonious flow. But, in order to identify potential four-way wins for ourselves and our families, we need to start by systematically observing our lives as a whole to form a new appreciation for how no one part exists in isolation. This yields fresh insights about how work, family, community, and your private self all affect each other. When a father in our Parents Who Lead workshop started exploring these interconnections, he noticed that “satisfaction in one area affects my mood and general happiness and thus allows me to perform well in the other areas of my life.” He could clearly see how his emotions spill over from one part of life to another. A working mother found that “when I work out and take time for myself, I am more likely to respond to my kids with kindness and grace.” Investment in her health improved her parenting. Another example: “Skills I’m learning in my new role as a manager at work, like setting goals and being patient, are helping me as I brave the new world of raising teenagers.” 

Recognizing these interdependencies helps us see opportunities to generate wins across all parts of our lives, rather than limit our perspective to the requirement of sacrifice. They’re usually not obvious and take some effort to uncover, but they’re there. To reveal some, begin by thinking about the different domains of your life. Your career, family, community (whether that’s religious organizations, friendships, or neighbors), and yourself. 

Excerpt from “Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life”, copyright 2020 by Stewart Friedman and Alyssa Westring. Used with the permission of Harvard Business Review Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.