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Lead From Behind: The Stages of Developing Valuable, Contributing Young Adults

By Stephen A. Elkins, PMP

Suddenly, we reached a point in my children’s lives where, unlike before, they not only understood what they needed to, but they were also willing to do it. It was time to lead from behind, and the transformation was much more difficult for me than it was for them.

Stages Of Developing

Stage 1: Do it yourself, but with a vision

For the first few years of your child’s life, you take care of everything yourself. A baby does not have much control over anything, and although you talk to them all the time, you’re not really communicating yet. But you want to start the development process early, so you sit down and think about what your child should be able to achieve in about 20 years. What does that mean for how they should be raised? What steps do you need to take as her parent? When should you start saving for college? How much? What else should we be doing?

So you take responsibility for taking care of them, and teaching them how to walk and talk, and giggle, and stuff like that. At this point, you are exercising more work than leadership, but in those adorable interactions you have with them, you are establishing a communication link that will carry you through their entire life. Maybe even more importantly, you are developing their personality through your own. A toddler can be shown the process of folding socks, and hugging, and what a sunrise looks like, and lightning, and the dog, and so on. They can be taught patience, and joy, and laughter, and love. Unfortunately, a toddler can also be taught about fear and things like that. You can tell if you’re doing it right if your child wants to be like you and you’re happy with what that means. Since they repeat everything they hear you say, are they saying things that are consistent with your vision?

If you allow them to take little risks at this age, it will encourage them to take bigger risks later. This is a good thing, although it sometimes scares the hell out of parents. When they’re grown up, they will need to be able to do that if you want them to really succeed in business and life. They will also need to grow up with a good amount of self-esteem, so they should be encouraged. I put my daughter in a gymnastics class when she was three, hoping it would encourage her self-esteem and athleticism, and I feel like it worked. I still made her bed and her food, and dressed her in her little sweat suits and bathed her. She developed a set of strong values and was quick to point out when I folded her underwear wrong or forgot to put my seatbelt on. I think this stage ended for me when her kindergarten teacher asked me to please stop doing her homework for her.
Stage 2: Strategic leadership

From the time she could first communicate, the message was, “You’re going to college. Period.” This was our vision for both of our children. It is extremely important to have long-tem goals, especially if you want your child to grow up to be a contributing member of society, as we always did. What the phrase, “You’re going to college (period),” really meant was, “You’re going to learn to think, and contribute, and explore, and grow, and have a rewarding life.”

On the other hand, having a vision is pointless if you’re not willing to do something about it. So we established some goals for them: getting good grades; participating in extracurricular activities; doing household chores, and going to church. All of these goals are aligned with our vision. When you establish goals for someone, it’s a good idea to establish measurable goals. Otherwise, how would you know when you’re accomplishing them? In addition, we also decided to keep them busy at all times, so they would be much less likely get into trouble or otherwise stray off course.

Getting good grades means establishing good study habits and enjoying the learning process. For parents, it also means having good lines of communication with teachers. Little children are rarely capable of deciding how to study on their own – much less actually doing it – so parents must be willing to spend all the time it takes to figure out what type of learner their child is, and what method of studying works best for them. It is probably important to establish good study habits as early as possible because college admissions rely heavily on academic standing and standardized test scores. It took us a little longer to establish my daughter’s preferred method of study, so we focused on having her methods established by the time she graduated from high school, so she could use them in college. After all, we weren’t going to be able (or maybe even willing) to control her activities like we did when she lived under our roof.

Extracurricular activities are an important social outlet, and they can really help in developing social skills, teamwork skills, competition (the healthy kind, hopefully), as well as learning how to deal with both success and failure. They also encourage children to take risks and lead others. Sports, if properly managed and coached, can be a tremendous benefit to a growing child. Our children were involved in gymnastics, then swimming, and then my daughter became a competitive cheerleader. These activities, too, were consistent with our vision. It was only later that we learned that competitive cheerleading has an extremely high injury rate, but we survived with only some sore muscles and one broken finger.

Doing household chores is an excellent education for the future. This is basic skill training that can teach a child so many valuable things: Home skills, hygiene, discipline, values, and on up to obscure stuff like constraint theory (As long as I keep the drier running, do I need to keep the washer going? Won’t that cause wet laundry to pile up?) The premise is simple: I will teach you how to do it, and give you an opportunity to practice, and then you will know how to do it for the rest of your life. If you do it wrong, I will show you how to do it right again. At some point I will be able to tell that you get it, and then I will give you more responsibility (and autonomy). This philosophy goes as far back as Sun Tzu in 500 B.C., and farther. He had parents too, right?

Going to church is just as important as the other goals. I mean, if you’re a kid who’s going to become a contributing member of your community, then going to church teaches you all about how to do that. First, you listen to sermons with the ‘old people’ (which in reality also provides you with insight into your elders’ values and paradigms – you also learn a little about respect and self-control). You develop an appreciation for music and singing – and those cool handbells and the immense power of the pipe organ. You wear a cool robe and light the candles on the altar. You get to see a lot of your friends and learn about spirituality with them. You learn all about Christmas and Easter. You learn to decide what your own beliefs are, and they can help to guide you along as you continue to grow. You get to have dinners with many different generations, and play games, and see weddings, and baptisms, and sometimes funerals. And the whole cycle of life is right there in front of you! A lot of teenagers go to church to be with their friends, and I think that’s a good reason to encourage them.

And in the process, you get to have a series of important interactions with your children that give you an opportunity to practice your leadership and parenting skills. By the way, you could really screw this whole process up by being too demanding or too impatient, or too mean. Been there, and what’s truly wonderful about parenting is that, unless you are truly evil to your child, you can make some mistakes and all is not lost as long as you remember your vision.

When my son was very young, we decided that we would not be able to afford the type of education he deserved, and so we really pushed the good grades and the extracurricular activities, in hopes that he would earn a college scholarship. It worked, and he went off to college on a full scholarship (and was high school Valedictorian, just to make his dear old dad proud). He was captain and MVP of his swim team, a Math Superstar, National Honor Society member, and on and on. Be careful how hard you push, though. I think I overdid it.

By the way, don’t forget the awesome value of hugs and kisses during all of this.

Here’s another interesting point: Obviously you don’t want them to fail at stuff after they leave home (although a little failure is also healthy), so you can perform little experiments while they still live at home. Give him or her a project or task and see how they do it with it. Did they willingly do it? Did they know how? Is he or she ready for less intrusive leadership? If not, it’s a good idea to step back and assume some of the control back, and talk to them about what it will mean when they are ready to do it on their own. You can also look at yourself: Do you delegate to them when they’re ready for it, or are you one of those micromanagers – people who insist on keeping all the control after others prove they can handle it? The little tests are actually for both of you, by the way. You can use them to ensure you are meeting your goals.

Stage 3: Lead from behind

So, at some point – usually some time during high school – your child proves to be capable of doing all of these things, and wants to do more cool things, like driving, and going to college, and having an apartment, and a job, and a family, and start a business, and so on. And the adorable little thing that sat on your lap and promised you he or she would stay five forever (13 years ago) no longer has a need for someone to direct them and control her actions and keep them safe. So your parental responsibility is over, isn’t it?

Well, not really…

But you can’t go to college with your kids. You can’t be in the car with them every minute, or go to job interviews with them, or join the military with them, or any of that stuff. If you can’t be there with them, then you can’t lead them the way you used to, and so you lead from behind. You’re still their parent, but you have to step back and see how they do. Now they’re in the lead, out there doing all that cool stuff and you’re in the rear with the gear, so to speak.

Some parents choose this point in their child’s life to freak out a little and wonder what they will do with themselves now that they do not have their child at home anymore. Well, if you’re still in tune with your vision, then the answer becomes apparent: You move to Colorado or Montana and take up fly fishing.

Nope, not even close.

If you got them safely to this point, what they need now is a mentor. You’re still responsible for them for a while longer, but if you did it right up to this point, you won’t need to loom over them any more. The vision is theirs now, but they still need someone who understands them and shares the vision with them, and can provide patient guidance when they ask for it (and when they prove they still need a prompt in the right direction). Well, okay…if you want to do maybe a little fishing, much of this can be done at a distance since we all have cell phones and text messaging and e-mail now. But they’ll stop by from time to time with a load of laundry, but they’re really there to see you and check in, and you get to talk about how things are going for them. You hear about their classes, and love interests, and roommates, and all the latest drama. You talk about what class is coming up next, and in the process you’re executing the next part of your responsibilities, according to the vision. This whole process will keep them grounded and will renew their dedication to their goals. And you can’t hug your kids over the phone. I still check in with my parents from time to time, but I have to admit I don’t bring the laundry with me anymore.

This will continue for the rest of their lives. Even though they may need less and less mentoring, you are still their mentor. They will even have other mentors who will teach them stuff even you didn’t know! And, if you think about it, that’s usually a good thing. If you can, you will do other things to help them achieve their vision: loan them money to start a business, babysit your grandkids (take them out for ice cream, right before dinner), help them develop business plans, introduce them to other people who can help them, and continue to listen to them.

So you see, you don’t necessarily have to decide what your child will become when he or she grows up, but you probably should look at where they’re headed and decide if that is consistent with your hopes for them. Give them the tools to make it as a successful, contributing adult: a long-term vision, and specific short-term goals that will allow them to achieve that vision. Then get behind them and advocate for them, and be their mentor. Finally, during the last few years of your life, they’ll do everything themselves.

Author Biography: Steve Elkins is the married father of two young adults. He is a former Navy man and a professional training specialist. He is a graduate student of Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Jacksonville, FL. But mostly he’s a Dad.

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