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Leadership After the Parent-Teacher Conference

I’m a hypocrite.

You might think that writing those three words is a release – akin to the admission that formally begins introductions at AA meetings – but it’s not. The phrase is simply the password to a dark, cavernous passage of second guessing and parental angst. Yet, there it is – I’m a hypocrite.

Pot-Kettle-300x178My youngest son is in 6th grade. He’s a great kid. Funny, good looking (takes after his mother, thank God), a compassionate soul and a lively spirit. He’s an average student. He has no time management skills, does many assignments at the last minute, and has me seriously worrying about how we’re going to get our basement in shape for him to move in when he’s thirty. In other words, he’s me at that age…only (truth be told) better in most every respect.

Yet here I sit, in my comfortable chair, telling him he has to improve. I’m not yelling; I don’t yell. I am, however, insistent that we collaborate on devising a time management system that works for him. I point out the benefits of the calendaring system I’ve championed for so long. My wife and I relate our “aha!” moments when we finally understood how to make this organizational thing work.

To his credit, he does not roll his eyes. He’s better than that. He listens and even takes some of it in.  He resolves to work with us…to do better. Hugs and goodnight.

But here’s the thing I can’t escape, as I sit now alone in my comfortable chair: I didn’t dare tell him that I was like him. I could not break away from the fear that my disclosure would cause him to lose resolve. I didn’t want him to think to himself: “What worked for Dad will work for me.”

There’s also this: The clock is ticking on the time when my son sees in me more achievement than flaw. At what point does one let the person, warts and all, come into clear focus? Judging by how I handled last night’s conversation, the decision I made was “not now.” The discussion of what was and what was not acceptable made me a hypocrite…and not for the first time.

I see many parallels in my work with business leaders. Many of the most significant conversations are held for the purpose of pointing out the shortcomings of subordinates.  Failures of time management, perhaps, or less-than-stellar performance.  I’m not sure how many of these meetings I’ve attended over the course of my career, but the number must be approaching an even hundred. I’ve witnessed all sorts of management styles and heard the message delivered in innumerable ways to workers in virtually every imaginable industry. In most cases I am well acquainted with the CEO delivering the message.

It is the rare CEO who meets the challenge presented by those meetings better than I did with my son last night. Most, like me, are hypocrites. They fear that recognition of common failings will provide cover for an excuse, rather than a challenge or a shared call to action.  If asked, many of these leaders will candidly admit to many of the same failings for which they just spent time castigating their team.  Some will even recognize the hypocrisy of demanding candor without providing it. Only a few, however, will take the leap, reveal themselves as humans with a sometimes flawed track record, and take up the struggle from now common ground.

Tonight, I’m going to talk to my son again. And whatever our progress with regard to grades and the elimination of last minute cram sessions and missed assignments, I have resolved to no longer be a hypocrite.

Wish me luck.