3 Postures of Leadership from an Adoptive Dad
Do you want to learn leadership lessons? Be a parent.
Do you want to learn those lessons in overdrive? Be a foster and adoptive parent.
Do you want to learn those lessons at warp speed? Foster and then adopt 5½-year-old triplets.
No problem, right? I’m joking of course.
However, my personal leadership journey accelerated exponentially when my wife and I accepted triplets (two boys and a girl) into our home.
Let me be clear: fostering and adopting kids is a very worthy and gratifying mission. We need all the help we can get to tackle the problem. It is also an intensely laborious mission. These kids have needs on multiple levels — physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual. The day to day work of teaching them valuable and fundamental life lessons- like kindness respect, and self-control- takes its toll on the body, mind, soul, and spirit. I have experienced exhaustion like no other. Yet, it is in this parenting journey that I have also experienced the most joyful moments like my now 8-year-old daughter standing up to bullies on the playground.
My buddy Bruce Van Horn simply says that “parenting is leadership.”
I agree with him. Over the last few years, I have been able to pluck leadership lessons out of my time as an adoptive dad. I call them the three postures of leadership. I believe they are applicable to leaders in any area -whether you are a homemaker, a small business owner, a government worker, or at the top of the corporate environment. Leadership is vitally important everywhere. I hope you benefit immensely from these three postures. But remember, leadership is about more than reading. It is about doing. Leadership is an action.
It is crucial, first of all, to properly define posture.
The precision of language has always been important to me. When I speak of posture I don’t refer to someone who stands up straight and never slouches over their computer. I don’t refer to nations putting on a show of force for other nations. I certainly don’t mean power poses. A quick Google search reveals the idea of an attitude or mindset. That’s not a bad start. But I believe it is so much more. Robin Sharma- in his inspirational videos- refers to mindset, soulset, and heartset. The combination of these three gets much closer to the idea I want to convey behind posture. The deep fundamental beliefs and values a person holds greatly influences the way he or she approaches and engages with people. This is posture. And leadership requires the right posture.
The 1st Posture of Leadership is Humility.
The importance of humility in a leader’s life cannot be overstated. A quote by C.S. Lewis comes to mind here:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Self-worth is incredibly important but the counterweight is humility. This humility helps the leader to adopt the learner’s mindset. Now you don’t have to be a student in a formal educational setting. Rather think of all the learning that takes place outside the classroom. Books, audiobooks, podcasts, articles, journals, and trade magazines are a few of the informal ways to educate yourself at home, in the car, at the gym, and while running errands. I often run into a statistic about CEOs reading 60 books a year. I don’t want you to get stuck on that number. If it takes you two months to read a book, so be it. Small steps taken consistently will lead you into a greater posture of humility.
Practice saying this with me:
“I don’t know everything and I certainly don’t know everything about leadership.”
Being an everyday student and having a humble attitude lead to personal growth. This results in being a better dad and leader. Sometimes the lessons come from unexpected places. My kids are a constant source of learning. They are a mirror of the things I most need to work on. The things that frustrate me the most about my kids are the things that I need to work on as well. I am talking to myself as much as to my kids when I repeat our favorite mantra around the house: “kindness, respect, and self-control.”
Even if your team members are not mirrors, you can still find ways to learn from them. You have authority and responsibility for your team but you cannot succeed alone. I exhort you to draw upon the unique perspectives and experiences of your team members. They have insights that are valuable and powerful and stem from a background that you may never fully understand. A posture of humility is one of understanding that there is more than one way to look at things and more than one way to solve complex problems. As a bonus: the very act of actively seeking out those various points of view will endear you to your team. Everyone appreciates being acknowledged for their contribution and being validated as an essential part of the team. That is the power of humility for the leader.
The 2nd Posture of Leadership is Empathy
Empathy is something we hear a lot about these days. It is widely talked about by psychologists, leaders, marketers, executives and more. But do people really get it? Or is it simply lip service? A quick Google search shows empathy to be: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The closely related word sympathy simply denotes “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” (again from Google).
I think an example quickly demonstrates the difference between the two.
Speaker A: “My cat just died.” Speaker B: “Sorry to hear that.”
Speaker A: “My cat just died.” Speaker B: “Wow! That’s terrible. I had a cat die last year and it really tore me up inside. That cat was a part of the family. Let me know how I can help you through this.”
The difference should be easy to see. Speaker B in the empathy scenario has made a choice to become emotionally involved and to ease the suffering of the other speaker. Even if Speaker B never owned a cat, they would still make that choice. The wording might go something like this: “I’ve never had a cat but I can tell that this is a really difficult time for you. Anything I can do to help?”
The idea of empathy is vital to our humanity and fundamental to authentic leadership.
My recommendation is for current and aspiring leaders to familiarize themselves with Emotional Intelligence (EQ/EI) by Daniel Goleman. Even though the book is some 25 years old, it is a firm foundation for increasing empathy.
Developing a posture of empathy won’t be easy for some. It takes time and practice. First, leaders need to be able to identify feelings in their team members (pain, fear, concern). This is not an easy task. Some team members may be more adept at hiding their feelings. One tip I can share is to look for opposite and extreme behaviors. Is this person normally friendly and happy? Do they look sad and hurt? Do they display way more than is normal for their sunny disposition? Is somebody who is normally on the quiet side or reserved suddenly lashing out and yelling at people? Have they disappeared altogether?
Once you have identified that someone is experiencing some hurt or pain, you have a choice to make: are you going to step into that other person’s pain knowing full well that you risk being subjected to pain? Do you have the emotional stamina for what comes next? This is a critical juncture in developing a posture of empathy. Leadership is a choice — the choice to step into the unknown. The reaction may be negative. Some team members may not want you to meddle in their affairs (personal more so). That is totally fine. However — and this is a great however — you just might connect more deeply with that team member through the simple act of caring. This is regardless of your ability to solve the problem.
My wife and I have experienced firsthand the choice to be empathetic when it came to our kids.
We initially indicated to our foster agency that we would be open for a placement of two boys between the ages of 4 and 8. Imagine our surprise when the agency called us to say they have two 5-year-old boys who have a triplet sister! The agency offered to send the girl to a home in a neighboring county. After the initial shock wore off, my wife and I talked it over, prayed about it, and decided that we didn’t feel comfortable separating triplets. We believed that separation would cause further harm. So we opened our hearts and home to all three.
This choice did not come without its own unique challenges. Aside from just being triplets, our kids came from a deeply troubled background. Their biological parents were Meth addicts who routinely abused and neglected their kids. Our triplets came to us severely emaciated and with serious developmental delays. As the days became weeks and months, the kids began to tell us the stories of their nightmare life before us. Things that made us weep and hurt. My wife and I went through a period where we experienced what is called “secondary trauma” — the pain of hearing the horrifying stories.
However, there is a great beauty, hope, and positivity on the other side of the choice to be empathetic. My wife and I see the tremendous strides our kids have made in the almost three years since they came into our home. They no longer have developmental delays. They are excellent readers and learners. They are sprouting like weeds. They are on a path to wellness and wholeness in each area of life. We are grateful to play our part. It would have been impossible without empathy.
The 3rd Posture of Leadership is Service
I hope you noticed the progression of these postures. They build on one another. I have purposely laid them out in this order: Humility is the foundation for empathy and likewise, empathy is the foundation for service. Crawl, walk, run. The order matters.
I am a big proponent of the idea of Servant Leadership.
I simply define it as going out of my way to find ways to serve my people. After all, leadership is service. Some ways that I have found to be effective include taking somebody out to lunch or getting donuts for the team. Think of the phrase surprise and delight. These are classic methods but small acts lift the spirits of the team (especially during stressful periods) and make them feel valuable. Handwritten notes of appreciation are also a great way to serve your team. Be creative, be consistent, and think of the needs of the team member (here I highly recommend the book 5 Love Languages or 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman). Some of the more introverted individuals will not like public appreciation. Small acts of service done over a long period of time will yield great results such as more trustworthy and productive team members.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the big acts of service. These are one-off occurrences but they come with significant cost. Leadership is sacrifice. I have had team members who had a sick relative and needed some extra time off from the job. I could have been a stickler for the rules (when they didn’t have paid time off). However, I wanted to build trust, understanding, and quite frankly love and friendship with my team member. We were able to work an arrangement where he was able to take the time off with no penalty to him. He was inspired and appreciative of how I handled the situation for him. He wanted to work to his best capacity for me.
On another occasion, I had a team member who was a very diligent employee. He drove 1½ hours to and from work (a total of 3 hours each day he came to the site). I wanted to serve his needs by helping him to reclaim some of that time back. I was able to transfer him to another site within the organization (same job/same pay) that happened to be 5 minutes away from his home. I hated to lose him. He was no longer working as one of my direct reports but I was happy to serve him in that way. His quality of life dramatically improved and he was inspired to do great work for his new boss. There was a cost associated with making the transfer but I gladly bore the cost because it served my team member’s needs and ultimately it was the right thing to do in my book.
Developing a service-oriented perspective has also been crucial with regard to my kids.
My wife and I are in the trenches every day helping our kids to move towards recovery, stability, and eventually healthy independence. It is difficult working with the heart. Interior work takes time and energy. Patience is a virtue as my mom used to tell me quite often. My kids have to overcome trauma to move forward. It is a slow process but its working and we will reach the goal of raising fully functional adults. We, as leaders, have to apply that same mindset toward the long-term health of our team members. Even if they outgrow our leadership; we don’t hold people back out of a selfish desire to maintain the status quo. Instead, we serve their needs for advancement to grow and develop into who they are meant to be. Leadership is selfless.
I admire those who have served me even at the cost of long-term pain for themselves. I am indebted to them for their sacrifice. It is a debt that cannot be repaid. I can simply try to find ways to serve. My kids, for instance, will never fully understand the sacrifices we made for them. I, myself never fully understood what my parents did for me. The same situation occurs for just about everybody in a leadership capacity. It doesn’t matter if your team member understands the ramifications of the act of service. Do it anyway. Do the right thing. It’s going to be hard. But it will be worth it.
I hope this article has blessed you.
It has blessed me tremendously as I wrote it. I hope you remember these 3 Postures of Leadership:
But more than just remembering them, I hope you find ways to apply them in your life personally and professionally. Learn from the situations I described. Be the leader you were meant to be!
Little humility equates to little empathy. Little empathy equates to little service. Little service equates to poor, unsuccessful, and ineffective leadership. That’s not for you!
Develop your posture of humility by practicing one small act of humility each day until you master it Develop your posture of empathy by practicing one small act of empathy each day until you master it. Develop your posture of service by practicing one small act of service each day until you master it.
Think outside yourself. Connect with your people. Build upon a bedrock of trust, belonging, love, admiration, and connection. This is exactly the kind of environment people want to work in and you can be the leader that people want to work for. Your posture as a leader frees your team to be creative, to be innovative, and to do their best work because they feel supported by you!
I’ve been helping leaders become better marketers for over 21 years and would love to help you take the next step in your spiritual leadership journey.