Character(s) and Family

Jack is 12.  Kate is 20.  They remain my best leadership lab: I study their behaviors, and study myself acting in response.  I like family leadership, because it’s real, raw, unpretentious, yet the stakes are high.  This week the two reminded me that it’s important to exercise my authority.  I mean “exercise” both in the sense of using it, but also in the sense of practicing it like a craft.  I, as much as my children, am a work in progress, and so I am always recalibrating.

Our little man has been an amazing leader in our home, honing his native skills of emotional intelligence.  For instance, when one of his friendly interruptions provokes one of my impatient eruptions he’ll be quite direct: “Geez, Dad,” he’ll say, “seems like you’re pretty wound up today.”  He stops me in my tracks.  Or, when Jen comes home from another day of battle in Lansing, he’ll say, “Let’s watch American Idol,” and then back it up by offering a shared vision of how things can be: “We need to lighten things up around here.  Life doesn’t have to be so serious, you guys.”  His sensitivity, humor and kindness have lifted us a hundred times over.  (For our part, we thank him, recognize the vital role he plays, and also try to tell him in words and action, that it’s not his job to take care of us.)  There’s no doubt that he’s often leading up.

Kate has also been an extraordinary teacher.  She’s an analytic, objective, impartial, and skeptical thinker who has helped me to see that my way was not the only highway.  She and I are so different and she has gone toe-to-toe with me on numerous occasions to make me aware that my “truths” are limited by my assumptions and biases.  I have really learned to respect her differences and I look forward to car rides back to college when I can learn from her.

They are also still our children, and we are not afraid to exercise our moral and occasionally penal 🙂  authority – key tools of leadership.  And I chose to exercise authority this week.  (Their ages – and my respect for them – necessitate me withholding the details of what follows, but any parent or supervisor can fill in the blanks from their own experience.)  Both acted in ways – one overt, and the other more covert – that exhibited defiance.  And I called them each out.  It would have been way more convenient and peaceful to ignore the stuff.  Objectively, it was minor.  But in their continued development, it had to do with character.  And character, like values, is never minor.

We all need people to call us out and call us to a higher standard, to be our best.  As parents and bosses we FAIL when we don’t give people feedback about falling short, counsel about why it matters (for them and us), and help for them to locate a path forward that works for them.  Especially when it has to do with character.  You might examine what you’re tolerating in the way of behavior that falls short of what you, your family or organization, and especially they themselves deserve.  Initiate direct, calm, and loving conversations to

Lead with your best self,

  • Great article – couldn’t be more on track. I had a similar situation with Jacob this week – painful to deal with but had to do it, owed it to him as a young man!

  • Do as I say, not as I do. My feedback has been placed under moderation, never to be seen. It’s been oppressed, suppressed and negated. We shall see if this one goes by way of the moderator/garbage bin, or is posted. Sort of looks like a yes man audience is the only permissible input.

    • Mark,

      I certainly can’t speak for everyone who posts to this site, but I feel that constructive feedback should always be welcome, whether on websites, at the workplace, or in the home.

      My own perception of some of your posts has been that they’ve been quite negative, and have expressed your own opinions, frequently without data to back them up, and frequently without offering solutions. That’s a complaint I have about many politicians and even citizens’ groups: They talk about how lousy their government is, but don’t propose any real solutions. So they’re really not contributing anything to the solution.

      In contrast, there are people who frequently post to this site who have very difficult circumstances … one gentleman who lives near the northern end of our beautiful state has been without work for some time, yet he regularly shares some beautiful and meaningful insights on this page, not all of which are in agreement with Dan’s original post.

      Regarding this week’s topic by Dan, how do you personally lead, either in your workplace, your home, or in your community? And can you see any ways in which “leading up” can be exercised?

    • Mark,
      As I have said before, I don’t know why yours and Mick McKellar’s posts, by the way, have gone at times into moderation, but I have ALWAYS released them. I’m not sure what does it. Your latest probably went there because you had numerous links to other sites and that must be a spammer flag for the WordPress software.
      I found two of your posts there this weekend and they were so short I didn’t understand the point you were making. One had half a sentence, then 3 Craigslist links. I followed the links and it said they had been removed.
      I felt that post literally added no value. If it was “opposed to me,” I would gladly have posted it, as I enjoy alternative views.

  • My comment is in reference to Dan’s article, not Mark’s posts.

    The highlighted statement toward the end of Dan’s article resonated with me. It says, “As parents and bosses we FAIL when we don’t give people feedback about falling short, counsel about why it matters (for them and us), and help for them to locate a path forward that works for them.” I have experienced the first step (feedback about falling short) without the final two steps (why what I’m perceived as doing wrong matters to me and to the whole, and how I might go about rectifying it in a way that is realistic for me). With only the first step, I have had to work hard not to be deflated, to re-energize myself in spite of what has happened to me, and to figure out on my own how to move forward.

    When I experienced bosses using only the first step, it reminded me to work harder to follow with the second two steps with those I lead.

    Thanks, Dan, for another reminder.

  • Amen. As a leader at an organization devoted to building character in young people, I couldn’t agree more.

    I would even push a little further and suggest that as adults we should be “exercising authority” with ALL kids, not just our own. Children and young adults tend to meet the level of expectation/standard that is set for them, and while parents are the most important player on the field, all of us should be involved in setting that level.

  • Actually, Mark, as Dan and frequent visitors here can attest, I often have points of difference with Dan yet my posts are often seen here, perhaps because I share my viewpoint in a way that respects differences.

    People of good will can have different points of view. It doesn’t mean either is bad or stupid or wrong. They’re just different!

    In this posting of yours, I detect feelings of victimhood because this blog values insights on leadershp, not carping and complaining, however cathartic that may feel to someone. There’s a lot to complain about situations. The question is, what are any of us going to do about it?

    I’m reminded of Eleanor Roosevelt who said something like “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.”

  • Dan, I agree that feedback on performance and consequences are helpful, especially if the expectations are clear and the consequences are laid out ahead of time. I can tell that, in this instance, you’re seeing your family as a hierarchical situation. We’ll always have hierarchies, as Dr. Julie Ann Wambach points out in _Battles between Somebodies and Nobodies: Combat Abuse of Rank at Work and at Home_. She also outlines patterns where power is abused, and dysfunctional ways of coping within hierarchies. Your children exhibit what she calls “right ranking” when they teach you. You exhibit “right ranking” when your discipline affirms that they are valued and respected.

    It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but wholly worthwhile, whether in families or in the workplace.

    • Activadvocate,
      Thanks for the notion of “right ranking,” but I have a question: what makes it right ranking? Is any type of feedback from “below” in the hierarchy “right ranking?” Or is it that it’s trying to help those “with rank” to act “right?”
      Are there guides in Dr Wambach’s book for those who want to “right rank” in an effective way? It seems like that might be good for the discussion with Mark.

      • The basis for right ranking is treating everyone with dignity, regardless of rank. It’s responsible use of position / status, not using it to achieve personal goals like fame or power. The author recommends using our position for the betterment of all. Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM) is an example of right-ranking.

        The author provides an assessment so readers can determine the extent to which they are overt or covert “Somebodies” or “Nobodies” in various settings.

        She also lists various rankist types, for example, among “Somebodies,” those she characterizes as the Tyrant, Seething Giant, Gangster, Sovereign, Grandee, Extortionist, Scapegoater, Fabricator, Gatekeeper, and Snubber. Among “Nobodies,” she lists those she characterizes as Retaliator, Dog Kicker, Flatter, Avenger, Gossip, Placater, Noble Sufferer, and Onlooker.

        Perhaps you’ve encountered some of these in your work? (Haven’t we all?)

        She also lists Right Rank types, characterizing them as Persuaders and Activists.

        Does this give you a clue why I value her insights? 🙂

        I have no doubt that Dr. Wambach would be pleased to share her research and concepts on your radio show sometime. Her website is

        Please forgive me for my delay in responding; I don’t follow this blog closely, given my other activities.

  • Dan,
    You are a lucky parent to be able to listen to what your children say and hear what they mean. Many parents do one or the other and miss the emotional details. It is easy to yell or admonish rather than to discuss and persuade and it is vital to keep family communication lines open even when you are feeling selfish! You know what I mean. Don’t sell your efforts short-even without the added public pressure, you are succeeding because you care enough to work at it. Nice Job!! Scott

    • Coach Kurtz,
      I am as defensive as anyone I know when my kids are pushing back. I am defensive at the threshold with just about everyone. I will never forget the time when you were coaching my daughter and asked me to NOT yell criticisms, to leave that to you. Wow, I remember thinking: Am I one of those parents??? But when I had to listen to you – cuz I said I would – boy did I hear how negative my thoughts were. I absolutely was one of those parents. I was so glad you got me to begin listening. That day, you held ME to a higher standard, and it was a lesson in coaching I will never forget!
      Thanks for writing and for your great work with kids!

  • Memorized by United States Naval Academy Plebes for over 100 years… This is a useful primer on both sides of feedback.

    Qualifications of a Naval Officer
    Written by John Paul Jones

    It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

    He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he shouldn’t be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetence, and well meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.

    • Bill,
      Very cool. I don’t ever remember seeing that before.
      It speaks of a word that seems nearly all gone in our society: nobility. It is so firm, yet so gracious.
      Thanks for sharing that!

  • Hi Dan –

    Thanks for this. I have a pair of terrific kids, but go through the usual struggles at home. I find that the greatest challenge to effective leadership is self-control/self-management. Controlling or limiting one’s own behavior – perhaps going against one’s natural inclinations is very difficult and needs constant attention. Eliminate sarcasm. Consistent messaging. Finding and expressing the best in others. Anger management, especially behind the wheel. Zero tolerance for bigotry. Leading by example – critical, but takes constant attention and growth and introspection. Worth the effort though – you get to be a better person as you help your kids grow.

  • Yes, leadership at times hurts as Colin Powell describes in his leadership lessons:

    “Lesson 1: “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
    Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable, if you’re honorable.”

    However, knowing that we get what we tolerate can be the motivation necessary to engage in those difficult yet important coaching conversations.

  • Thanks, Dan, for this post. While I’ve read your blog for some time now, this is the first I’ve been moved to comment. In part, it’s because this weekend my own (awesome) daughter called on me to exhibit some leadership. We had one of those “direct, calm, and loving conversations” with her, and gave her the guidelines she’d need to be able to make better choices in the future.

    I’ve long thought that what I learn & apply as a parent and what I learn & apply as a leader have a fair amount of crossover. Your blog post this week is a good reminder to step up and be a better leader, to have more of those direct, calm and loving conversations at the office, too. My innate fear of becoming a micromanager and nitpicker sometimes keep me from actually helping others to succeed by pointing out what needs to change.

  • Interesting conversations here. AND, I have a somewhat different point of view. The statement “As parents and bosses we FAIL when we don’t give people feedback about falling short, counsel about why it matters (for them and us), and help them to locate a path forward that works for them” doesn’t just apply to parents and bosses. It applies to ALL of us (and at the same time, I “get” that you were directing the column at parents and bosses).

    However, we are all in service to one another, which includes giving feedback. Each of us is at our own point of development along the humanity continuum. So one thing to remember about feedback is that it reflects the giver’s point-of-view. Many times we believe we are giving feedback about another’s behavior, but feedback is actually letting the other person know how they have impacted us. It’s important to own our emotions (i.e., “This incident makes me remember a time when I…” or “The impact your behavior has had on me is…”). This way, we do not imply that we are better than the other, but instead that we understand that life is about learning, making choices, feeling comfortable with the outcomes of those choices, and choosing again if not. It becomes an exercise in love and emotional intimacy.

    • A conversational tool to use with colleagues comes from (can’t remember for sure, but both are good books:) _Crucial Conversations) or _Radical Collaboration_. It goes like this:
      1. When you… (describe the other person’s behavior)
      2. Here’s how I respond… (describe something detrimental to the working relationship)
      3. …so in the future, please… (describe what you’d like)

      This works better than merely complaining. It helps them understand another person’s perspective, and what they’re asking for.

      Maybe, in the case of a parent-child interaction, the parent could add that probably other people (other adults?) would respond in the same way, and this would not lead to a happy life adjustment for the child. Naturally, the parent wants what’s best for the child in the long run, and that’s why it would be best for the child to change their behavior.

      Does that make sense?

  • FRM,
    Your observations about feedback are interesting, and I agree and also differ. I believe the rule should be as you say: give feedback which share your point of view and how someone’s behavior affected you. So often we don’t do this; we talk about the other person, their behaviors, (what we think are) their motivations, and what we think those behaviors say about them and impact others. It’s easier to do this than simply own how I perceived or felt about their behavior. So, I’m right with you on that.

    In fact, it reminds me of a very powerful teaching that my business partner M.A. did in a workshop on conflict. As mediator, she refused to let the two parties in conflict drag anyone else into the room. Each had to own their own feelings and observations, through “I” and not “you” statements. Even in a simulation it was hard. People wanted to say, “everyone else…,” or “lots of people…” But she made them stand up for their own point of view – no more, yet also no less. It was very human and formed the basis for one-to-one respect.

    So, why do I NOT agree? Because in the case of parents, I think sometimes we need to stand up for, represent, as it were, more than ourselves. We need to be able to stand for the community in some ways. For example, if a child deceives you, you can certainly say how it made you feel, and what you thought. But to me it’s perfectly reasonable to use such a case as a teachable moment, and to speak on behalf of more than just yourself. And the discussion may well turn to other examples, life experiences, where you have seen dishonesty cause great pain – to the tellers and those who were lied to. Perhaps you should just say, “I’m disappointed and frightened (which were my feelings when as a parent or other I’ve been lied to), because lying undermines my trust and I would hate not to trust you.” But somehow, to me, it’s about more than me, my trust, my disappointment or fears. It is about building a world of trust.

    Thoughts on this? Happy to have pushback, but sometimes I think a parent can speak for teh community, so, I believe can a boss, who is supposed to represent more than just her own opinion, but also the needs and standards of the organization.


  • What a dialogue today! I hope this makes Jack and Kate feel accomplished. I often do not know what to do when I am in the reverse situation described in this RFL. That is when as a “nobody” [Activadvocate comment] I try to correct a “somebody,” or merely try to get a somebody to listen to the rest of the story.

    Of course, none of us are nobodies, but when the person in a superior position on the flow chart acts like you are a nobody, then convincing them that you have something worthwhile to contribute is difficult.

    I like the family anecdotes, since they open more and more issues, as you re-read them. Life is simple, and then it is not. Often it is not the circumstances, but the people who make the day. That applies to work, or home. Human relations is the key to it all.

    • Mark John,
      Interesting you should mention that about bosses and nobodies, because this week’s Everyday Leadership radio is all about leading up. You might want to pick up the stream at
      Thanks for your continued contributions to the RFL community.

  • Great article Dan. It clearly got a lot of people including me thinking about your messages and looking at how they fit each of us. For me, it helped identify places to seek different ways of listening and responding. Thanks.

  • Very good article. Being a mother of three grown daughters I understand the learning curve on both sides! My only other comment is that this also applies to education. Too often it is easier to let things slide and not take on the “hassle”. It is important to help students of all ages (adult and children) grow and develope to their full potential. Even if this means a little “hassle” sometimes.

  • I read your weekly emails and find them to be helpful. You seem to find nuggets of info that we all need to remember.

    I find that I continue to learn from my kids about who I am and how I can improve. It is hard to not make mistakes – of course we usually don’t realize our words or actions or decisions are wrong until later. But I have always tried to be honest and admit when I am wrong to my kids. I believe they need to know that we recognize and can admit our own mistakes.

    I found the comment from Mark below to hit the mark for me in my work environment.

    Of course, none of us are nobodies, but when the person in a superior position on the flow chart acts like you are a nobody, then convincing them that you have something worthwhile to contribute is difficult.

    I recently asked for some feedback from my boss and was told ‘Yes, everything is fine. If it wasn’t, you would know it.’ That is so often the feedback the “nobodies” hear.

  • Dear Dan,
    Thanks for a great post. After a rough trip home for the past month, I came to realize that home is the place where we really learn the give and take of life. If I think back on the times that mattered to me with parents or friends, it had to do with these soul wrenching moments, when we realize simultaneously that we are at once less than we ever thought, but more than we could ever imagine, due to some real moment of connection over a shortcoming.
    It is important not to cling to any one moment or insight about ourselves, or those we love. Life indeed is very fluid, and the danger of brooding or gloating over such inherently imbalanced power moments( parent to child) is really the only shortfall. But to forego these moments for that reason is pure folly.

    All five of the Mulhern-Granholms and extended families and friends in my thoughts this stormy February day.


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