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A Lesson in Leadership, From my Kids

Sometimes the best way to test the true practicality of ideas you get out of business books, is to put them into practice with kids.

After reading L. David Marquet’s book (“Turn the Ship Around!”), I decided to try a similar “leadership at every level” approach with my kids (two boys, aged 6 and 8). In particular, I like the “I intend to…” method to improve independence and accountability. And I really don’t like saying ‘no’ to the same request 10 times in 10 minutes (e.g. “Can I play Nintendo?“). 

“I intend to…”

If you haven’t yet read “Turn the Ship Around”, I highly recommend it, not least of which so you can read about “I intend to…” (Chapter 11!). In 25 words or less, the “I intend to…” approach encourages people in the team to take more ownership for their actions by stating an intention rather than asking permission. (That was 24 words and David would do a much better job than me!).

How hard can it be?

So I explained the “I intend to…” approach to my boys as simply as I could, anticipating it would take quite a while to get the message through. They seemed to grasp the concept quickly, demonstrating their understanding with examples (e.g. “Dad, I intend to play Nintendo!“).

I then explained the valuable subtly of this approach, whereby you must preface your intention with a brief description of why it’s an appropriate action. This demonstrates to the “approver” (in this case, me) that you’ve considered your action and have satisfied the necessary conditions precedent (i.e. you preempt all the questions the approver might ask, including simply, “why should I say ‘yes’?“).

New methods take some preparation

That’s when my 8 year old nailed it (and me, right between the eyes!). He said:

“But Dad, the conditions are different every time. Sometimes you let us play Nintendo because we’ve finished our homework, other times because we’ve been good, or it’s the weekend, or we haven’t played recently, or we’ve cleaned our rooms. How are we meant to know when you’re going to say ‘yes’?”

Clearly he understood the approach and then he found a massive hole in my application – I haven’t been clear or consistent in deciding when (for example) they can play Nintendo. They don’t know when I’ll say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, nor how / when they could apply “I intend to…”. The best they can do at the moment is request permission and wait for an answer, which isn’t the empowerment and leadership I’m looking for!

Clarity and consistency help lead towards confidence and autonomy

In order for this to work and for them to have the confidence / autonomy to “intend” rather than seek approval, we need to agree the conditions precedent for each activity (or type of activity) that they might intend to do. And those conditions will need to be clear enough for everyone to understand and flexible enough to apply to a range of times, situations and environments.

Maybe we also need to have a good conversation about what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. In this case, for example, an appropriate balance between work and play, or between screen-time and other activities. This could help them make good decisions (and therefore intentions) that aim towards those outcomes, even if they’re not exactly the same decisions I would have made.

Effective delegation relies on a clear and common understanding of conditions and objectives

It made me reflect on this approach in business. In David’s book, a military environment, I imagine that many decisions/actions might be accompanied by relatively clear conditions. In these cases, those conditions need to be well understood by all involved to maximise efficiency and autonomy.

However, even in the military there would be plenty of very complex situations that don’t have the same “condition clarity” (particularly in wartime scenarios and/or training exercises!). In much less structured teams and businesses, the ratio would be even more ambiguous. This is when objectives must also be clear so that delegates can make the best possible decisions aligned with those objectives and minimise the need to escalate for approval.

Delegation is critical for performance, efficiency and (importantly) engagement. And effective delegation requires a common understanding of conditions and objectives, so that all involved can maximize alignment between the decisions each would make in any particular situation. Delegates can only act with autonomy and intention, when they’re confidently aligned with the rest of their team (including those to whom they’re accountable).

I think I’ll test more leadership theory and practices with my kids – that short interaction was really thought provoking. I clearly have a lot to learn from them!

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