As a parent of two beautiful girls I understand the desire to protect and nurture.  I also know that every parent has the best intentions for the way they parent and provide the caring and nurturing environment that our children need. As a leader I also know that I have a similar genuine intention to develop my people and generate a high performing team.  However, both parents and leaders, despite the genuine intention, sometimes unintentionally disable our children and our people.  I outline below my insights not only based on my own experience as a parent and leader, but on my observations as a psychologist and executive coach.


Parable: The man and the butterfly

There was a man who walked through the woods every day.  He was a caring man who was passionate about seeing others grow and develop.  He was respected and well liked.  On this particular day he came across a chrysalis hanging in a tree.  He noticed that the butterfly in the chrysalis was struggling to get out.  So, as he was a man with great compassion and care, he took out his knife and slit open the chrysalis.  Out came a beautiful butterfly.  He was so pleased with himself and confident that he had done a great deed that day. He went on his way, smiling to himself.

The next day, during his walk, he discovered the same butterfly on the ground.  The large wings were stunningly beautiful.  He was a little surprised though that the majestic butterfly was not in the sky, fluttering away. He asked the butterfly why it was not in the sky, and the butterfly explained that it could not fly.  It explained further that its wings were not strong enough to lift into the sky.

It suddenly dawned on the man that while his intention was to help, that he had disabled the butterfly by not allowing the butterfly to break out of the chrysalis on its own, once it’s wings were strong enough to break through.  The wings are only strong enough to fly if they are strong enough to break through the chrysalis.

The man could not believe how he had impacted this butterfly in such a terrible way, and so unintentionally.  He vowed to consider very carefully his future actions to help others and the potential unintentional negative consequence of his desire to help.

1. Fix too Early

I have absolutely no doubt that everyone reading this article have found themselves at some point in time, whether as a leader or as a parent or carer, jumping in and providing the solution too early.  

We become genuinely concerned when we see our children or people struggling and experiencing frustration, and we become distressed when we see this struggle.  Our solution: to jump in and eliminate the frustration and the struggle.  This intuitively feels like the right thing to do, but in fact is highly counter-productive.  

The result of jumping in and fixing too early, while the problem is resolved and frustration eliminated, the child or direct report does not get to experience the sense of achievement and satisfaction from working through the problem themselves and coming up with a solution.  They do not experience the process of working through a struggle to get to an outcome. Perhaps most significantly, they do not develop the self-efficacy (belief that they can complete the task successfully) and self-esteem required to be resilient.

Further impacts are that by fixing to early we do not teach the concept of determination and perseverance.  By jumping in and fixing to early we teach our children and direct reports to become dependent on someone else to fix the problem, which ultimately leads to a mindset of an external locus of control (i.e. attributes success and failure to external factors).

The value of struggle: A butterfly is only able to fly once the wings are strong enough to break through the chrysalis. Sometimes experiencing a struggle is the most impactful source of growth and learning.

Grit, the combination of passion and persistence, only comes about if we learn to manage frustration and disappointment. Fixing to early disables the development of Grit.

The Alternative to Fixing too Early

  1. Manage your own feeling of concern about their frustration and struggle by understanding that struggle is essential for growth.
  2. Instead of jumping and fixing, rather ask: “How are you going?”
  3. Coach rather than tell or fix.  Ask: “How could you approach this differently to get the outcome you are looking for?”
  4. Encourage and reward the effort (rather than focus on the outcome and rewarding the outcome).
  5. Consciously assess capability against complexity of the task and the possibility of them successfully completing the task. Base your decision on whether to fix or not based only on this assessment.

2. Over-Protective and Preventing Mistakes

Our desire as a parent, and as a leader, to protect and prevent harm is sometimes overwhelming.  In that moment of this escalating desire we react by jumping in and protecting our children and people from hurting themselves and making mistakes.

From a developmental perspective, mistakes or hurting ourselves are critical requirements for us to establish an accurate assessment of what we are and are not capable of doing.  It is this very establishment of knowing our capabilities that leads to improved decision making and judgement.  

Every time we rescue our child or prevent our child from getting hurt, we are essentially limiting their learning about their boundaries and capabilities.  The impact of this is massive, and often becomes highly apparent during adolescence.  I firmly believe that adolescents who have not had the opportunity to learn from mistakes, who lack the ability to make good decisions and judgements, end up making poor decisions around drugs, alcohol and sexual activity.   Those adolescents who were allowed to hurt themselves as children and make mistakes, are much more aware of what their capabilities are and know what they can and cannot handle, and therefore make much better decisions and judgements about their actions.

We need to stop been over-protective, particularly as parents.  We need to develop our children’s ability to make sound judgements and good decisions. We need to be comfortable allowing them to hurt themselves, and then coach them on the learning they have gained from the mistake.

An Alternative to Being Over-Protective

  1. Allow our children to take risks and have a go.  
  2. Rather than preventing them from having a go, stand nearby and protect them from catastrophic harm, but allow less significant falls and hurt to occur.
  3. Trust that mistakes lead to learning and clarity of capability.
  4. Manage our anxiety: our anxiety is ours not theirs.


3. Too Lenient and Not Holding to Account

I observe both behaviours in myself as a parent as well as I other parents, where we make a request of our children but do not follow through with the consequence, or we constantly renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

For example: “Daniella, can you please tidy your room before dinner?”; followed shortly by “Daniella, if you don’t tidy your room before dinner then you get no treat.”; followed by “OK, if you don’t tidy your bedroom after dinner then no story tonight.” Etc.

I have two issues with the above.  The first is that I very often hear parents making a request through a question rather than a directive.  What do you think is the difference between the two requests?

  1. “Daniella, can you please tidy your room before dinner?”
  2. “Daniella, you need to tidy your room before dinner please”

Request (a) implies that there is an option.  If it is actually an option, then that request is fine.  In my experience however, many parents actually mean it as a directive but phrase it as a question.  Request (b) is a much more effective way of making the request.  It is clearly a directive and an expectation, which means that we will be more likely to hold them to account.  

If you typically use request style (a), then not only will you find it difficult to hold your child or direct report to account, but you create some confusion when you later become directive i.e. how and when did it change from a request to now a directive.

Second, I often observe parents not sticking to the agreed consequence and going down the path of renegotiating the terms. This not only undermines your initial request, but teaches your child/direct report that you cannot stick to the agreed expectations, and results in your child and direct report pushing boundaries and ignoring requests.

An Alternative to Being Too Lenient

  1. Make requests as a directive and only use “can you…” if it is genuinely optional.
  2. If you set a consequence, stick to the consequence and do not renegotiate.
  3. Hold your children and direct reports to account to the agreed expectations.

Neither parenting nor leadership is easy.  Many of us make mistakes despite our genuine good intentions.  I believe that what helps to be more effective as both parents and leaders is to be reflective and consider what you might need to be doing differently on a regular basis. Question how you are working, and rather than very quickly labelling the ‘naughty child’ or ‘under-performing employee’, question how you have contributed to the issue.

Hopefully this article has prompted some thinking and internal reflection. If it has then I encourage you to experiment with an alternative course of action and monitor what happens differently.  

Finally, above all else, remember that your primary responsibility, as a parent or leader, is to facilitate growth and resilience to enable successful future independence. Choose your actions in the context of this objective and you will find yourself being a better parent and a better leader.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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