By Foster W. Cline, MD
There is an essential relationship between parenting and leadership. In fact, I might say that parenting is leadership in its "pure" form. The role of a parent is to build America's future leaders. I say that parenting is "pure" leadership because parents, like all good leaders, must motivate their children to excel.
Good leadership is almost always motivational. But out in the real world, leadership doesn’t always motivate from within. In some corporations and correctly in the armed services, leadership is defined by power. An individual may work well for a company or carry out a mission without necessarily respecting the leader. Officers in the armed forces can expect compliance.
However, if parents base their leadership on power, especially with an adolescent, the result is often a disaster. In a corporation, a leader may fire an employee. But you can't fire your kids!
Both parents and effective leaders realize that forcing compliance is not effective. So the question comes down to: "How do I motivate people?” or one of life's great questions in general: “How do I get people to do what I want when I can't make 'em do it?!”
Love and Logic defines three types of leadership styles. These leadership styles are obvious both in parenting and in businesses. When all goes well and people are happy and the mission is being accomplished, almost any leadership style works. Truthfully, all three leadership styles work with small children. So the real question boils down to which leadership style works in tough times or for most people. Which leadership style works when things are not going well?
Helicopter leadership (or parenting) is based on excessively taking care of others, rescuing them, and generally hustling around to be overly helpful. Many parents and leaders resort to the helicopter style on an unconscious basis because they hope folks will be grateful and therefore comply. Unconsciously, most helicopters hope that if they do enough for people, they will become dependent and thankful for the bountiful help. Their unconscious hope is that if their children need them, they’ll be nice and comply.
Ultimately, excessive helicopter leadership results in a hostile dependency. Those receiving the help end up feeling angry at themselves for needing the help and often become angry at the other person because they don't "give me enough." This is expressed by the well-known expression: "He bites the hand that feeds him." Or, “The government just doesn’t give me enough for all four children!”
Helicopter parenting generally involves a rescue.
Wanting to rescue is part of our human goodness. But there is an important Rule for Rescue that should be followed:
It is generally ineffective to go more than half way for a chronic problem people have caused themselves!
It is human nature to want someone else to handle our problems for us. It can be temporarily helpful to have someone go more than half way to help. And that may be effective for a short period of time as long as it is not to solve a chronic problem we have caused ourselves.
However, it is very easy to get sucked in to providing too much help. Once the rescue goes more than half way for chronic problems people have caused themselves, the metaphor is this: It’s like pushing one car of a roller coaster up over the top of the first hill. As soon as that happens, a tipping point is reached and the situation mechanics massively change. The pusher no longer has control of a runaway situation.
Note all the modifying words in this important Rule for Rescue: “generally”, “more than”, “chronic”, “caused themselves”. This means it is generally quite safe to go more than half way for an acute or chronic problem that people have not caused themselves.
This important rule applies to a cousin who might be sponging off your grandfather or to a company coming to the taxpayer for a bailout.
Ultimately rescuers and those they rescue may develop a symbiotic or co-dependent relationship. They come to need each other! Parents, businessmen and companies that go to others or the government for bailout have all discovered that once you owe people massive amounts, you no longer have a lender but a partner. Now, because of the symbiosis, the helper has no choice other than to become involved in attempting to rescue a failing helpee or system.
Drill Sergeant Leadership
Drill Sergeant leadership will work in those situations in which leadership is based on power. It works well in those situations where sacrifice is demanded rather than requested. It works in situations where a consensus or discussion could be destructive or where winning a mission must be accomplished.
I remember how well this was expressed by my first Sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood when, in 1956 I enlisted in the Army at age 16:
“Let's get something straight. I am here to think. You are here to do! I am here to tell. You are here to respond so that you will live. In a battle, you won't know what to do and you will die. So you mustn't try to think. You need to listen to me!”
Obviously Drill Sergeant parenting is an easy, quick way to parent young children: "Get up there and you do your homework now!" “Turn off that TV now!” Drill Sergeant parenting, in short, works in all situations where everyone, be it enthusiastically or resentfully, buys into the power of the leader. It is fast and it can be effective. Certainly the easiest way to govern is benevolent dictatorship. The problem, of course, is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So the benevolent dictatorship almost always becomes malevolent.
As I said before, almost any type of leadership works when things are going well. But when things go poorly, Drill Sergeant leadership (and parenting) almost always results in mutual resentment. The leader is resentful toward the troops that didn't carry out the mission as it was outlined and the troops are resentful that the mission was demanded in the first place.
A Consultant style of leadership is the only effective type of leadership when the use of power is not an option. Thus, wise parents of adolescents rely on consultant parenting. Consultant leadership has many advantages:
1) It encourages individual responsibility.
2) It keeps the problem on the individual who owns it.
3) It leads to neither the codependency of Helicopter leadership or to the resentment of Drill Sergeant leadership.
Consultant leadership generally relies on the use of questions. Questions are very powerful. When we are telling a person what to do or even when we are rescuing them, we can never really be sure that they are paying attention to us or our message.
In fact, I have heard parents give long lectures to their children about how to have friends. When I instruct the parents to ask the child what they, the parents, just said, the child boils down a 10 minute lecture into, "Mom said: ‘Be nice’.” Think of how much time would have been saved if mom had simply said “be nice” in the first place! And the only way she would ever know what her child was hearing is to ask.
Questions are very valuable. This is why a good counselor is able to charge $75 an hour for giving good answers. But a wise therapist charges $150 an hour for asking thoughtful questions.
Even if leadership is based on power it generally never hurts to ask a lot of questions, gather information and to let people know that, in a consultive way, you care about what they think.
The first step is to attempt to build a consensus. Certainly, as President Truman said, the buck stops with the leader. However, before the buck stops it's good to talk about how it might be spent. Because a leader in a power position can always rely on his power, it is essential to try other things first. The parent of a young child can always demand particular behavior. But let's try other things first.
I sometimes hear that consultant leadership is too time consuming. But I have found that is really not true. Being a consultant leader means spending time before the decision is made. Helicopter and Drill Sergeant leaders spend time after the decision is made when they clean up the mess. Either way time is spent.
Leadership Styles Result in very Different Outcomes when Times are Tough
Depending upon the style of leadership, there are major important differences in how things work out when things have gone wrong. When Drill Sergeant leadership has been used and things go wrong, every body is resentful toward each other.
When helicopter leadership has been used and things go wrong, there is almost always the end result of guilt and blame. The leader feels guilty: "What more could I have done?" "Where did I go wrong?" In other words, because much of the responsibility of how things go lies on leadership, then leadership does quite a bit of hand-wringing. When leaders demonstrate guilt, those beneath them (whether employees or children) respond with blame. Guilt and blame go together like bread and butter.
Foster Cline MD
So the reciprocal relationship in Drill Sergeant leadership is resentment-resentment and in Helicopter leadership is guilt-blame.
There tends to be a much happier outcome when things go wrong following Consultant leadership.
Questions are asked of the employees or child:
“What could you have done differently?”
“How do you think you'll handle it in the future?”
“What have you learned from this?”
“How do you think you will handle the consequences?”
If the leader shows empathy toward the child or employee, the result is a delightful combination of affection and self examination: “Gee mom, thanks for understanding. Next time I'm going to..."
Drill Sergeant parenting and Helicopter parenting always involve the parents overtly or covertly taking responsibility for how things turn out. The beautiful thing about Consultant parenting lies in the fact that parents are there to help and give their thoughts and ideas but the responsibility for how things turn out is with the child.
Needless to say, the older the child the more responsibility they can handle. No young child is capable of handling all the decisions that must be made for their own benefit. But the earlier parents start the process of sharing decision-making and responsibility in age-appropriate ways, the better.
Foster W. Cline MD
Foster Cline is co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute. A child psychiatrist, physician, international speaker, and author of many books on parenting and dealing with difficult children and their families, Dr. Cline has worked with parents and children for over thirty-five years. Dr. Cline and his wife, Hermie, have raised three birth children, adopted one child from residential treatment at the age of eight, and fostered three children.