Wisdom//

Parenting as Leadership

A retired U.S. Marine shares his tips.

Klaus Vedfelt/ Getty Images
Klaus Vedfelt/ Getty Images

By Brian Chontosh

Editor’s Note: There are a number of reasons the author of this article, Brian “Tosh” Chontosh, a retired U.S. Marine and recipient of the Navy Cross, is asked to speak, teach and consult on subjects related to leading others as well as individual performance. One of the more dramatic reasons is reported on Wikipedia: “On March 25, 2003, during an ambush while advancing upon Baghdad, Chontosh aggressively attacked an entrenched enemy position, resorting to using captured enemy weaponry when his M16 ran out of ammunition. He is reported to have killed at least 20 enemy soldiers during the incident.” (Read the full entry here). Once asked on a podcast if he was writing a book, Tosh responded that he was doing his best to write a book with the way he lived his life; in being an ultra-runner, a coach, to holding outdoor retreats in the Rocky Mountains, and to the the seemingly everyday parts of living like being a dad. Tosh most recently wrote for Spartan Life about his thinking in regards to performance testing. In this month’s column, he writes about the similarities (and mutual complexities) shared between leadership and parenting. And if you want to follow Brian — which I highly recommend — he is active on his Instagram account.

What if we looked at parenting as a specialized art under the leadership umbrella?

We seem to be ever enthusiastic about combat leadership, corporate leadership, peer leadership, NASCAR pit crew leadership, football locker room leadership, and on and on. But rarely, if ever, do we invite the art of parenting into the conversation. I even think the parenting books are shelved on the opposite side of the exhaustive collection of leadership books at Barnes & Noble.

I’ve spent a career inundated with the leadership discussion. It began at Parris Island when I arrived as a new recruit for boot camp where we were stripped of personal identity and rebuilt with Marine Corps customs, courtesy, and traditions. There were 14 leadership traits and 11 principles that we were driven to commit to memory during my junior enlisted years. If you wanted to be a good Marine, you aimed to memorize and exemplify each of these.

Discussing Leadership — From Boot Camp On

The discussion was always present and in your face. It didn’t matter if you were marching, cleaning your rifle, or standing in the chow line. Everything you did incorrectly or too slow was correlated to a lack of desire or propensity to be a leader. I remember standing in front of the Series Honor Graduate board, I was asked what the most important leadership trait was. “Integrity” (obviously) was my answer as it was ‘the answer’ and I would go on to recite the standard definition: “Doing what is right even when no one is watching.” During a Marine of the Quarter board about a year later I was asked the same question. I answered “Understanding” this time to where I was asked to explain. Understanding wasn’t one of the 14 leadership traits, which I was reminded of afterward, but my bearing was on point during a convincing argument, and bearing was a trait.

I even remember the time I offered “Loyalty” as the most important trait during another something or other. The irony was that I won that Board only to have a meritorious promotion denied as Major Chase and 1stSgt Tusipasi Suiaunoa taught me that my basic appreciation and failed loyalty towards the command over taking care of a subordinate was unsuited for growth through the ranks of increased responsibility. A facet of loyalty I hadn’t yet matured enough to consider. I’ll never forget those loving ass-chewings as part of the formative reasons for seeking a commission and desiring to dig in headlong into this fascinating topic called Leadership. Both individuals would go on to write incredible, tipping-point, recommendations for my officer selection package; with a commission came even grander applications and discussions of leadership.

Leadership was always the hot buzz word; as both a noun and verb. You could even put an adjective or adverb in front of it to reroute the entire conversation. There were good & bad leaders, garrison & field types, peacetime & combat styles, line & staff, enlisted & officer and who cares to count how many other combinations. In the beginning it was traits and principles; short ticker tape items you might see on a bumper sticker, email signature, or poster. They were vanilla, yet powerful and could be committed to memory. As my rank and responsibilities increased, so did the demand for more developed leadership constructs to guide engagement within teams and then while in command. We delved into scenario-based discussions, ethical decision examples, and moral dilemmas to further codify our leadership resolve. I was even assigned a premium leadership position at the United States Naval Academy and afforded the opportunity to attend the University of Maryland to dig even deeper into theory and earn a Master of Professional Studies in Leadership; all in order to polish some savvy.

Leadership and Parenting

Nowhere along the 21-year journey did parenting breach the conversation in earnest for benefit of discussion. Nowhere else have I found a purpose greater than parenting to put all of it into magnificent perspective. I’m not sure exactly why I feel so strongly about this, but I am absolute of my opinion here. Maybe it stems from the fact that to become a parent there requires no permission, no formal degree, or even any competence to be given the awesome responsibility for the life of a child. And that this wondrous, initially helpless creature will grow with default toward unconditional love, trust, and forgiveness, each never requiring to be earned, but freely given only to be proven undeserved.

Let’s balance definitions, identify an endstate, restrict personal attachment, and assume love for the better part of this conversation (ideally, we also include serving the greater good of humanity, but that is a stretch exercise). Parenting is the aspect of creating an environment for offspring to thrive on a journey toward independence while optimizing providence for success. This involves encouraging essential values like respect, common decency, and kindness; the excitements of earning & achievement; critical thinking; and moral courage. As parents, we are transmitting our wisdom and life lessons to the next generation in such a way that they will be able to continue giving to the world progress and success at the degree where we left off.

Creating the Right Environment

As a parent I need to create an environment that is appropriately responsive to the needs and development of my children. It must be unrestrictive enough to allow for physical, intellectual, and emotional exploration, freedom of movement, and challenge. There is a requirement to guide toward success & reward while also allowing for failure & consequence; shielding a child from struggle or discomfort denies them an opportunity to evolve. This environment needs to be restrictive enough to provide structure and limit infinite possibility by being designed such not to allow for irreparable damage or calamity to self or others. I also must appropriately feed the environment with adequate & limited resources, align it with evolving purpose, and insulate it from the disasters of others. Resources as a parent include information, people/ personalities/ relationships, provocative perspective, time, as well as the more obvious material types. As a child’s development progresses, the horizon must stretch and fade.

Inside this incredibly dynamic place, the underlying focus of achievement is development. We thrust all of the traits, principles, philosophies, theories, strategies, morals, ethics, etc. and smoosh them up in here. We exercise patience in presentation and appreciate development as a process, not an event. This is the essence of Leadership; it is an art.

Let’s spot-check the gaps for a moment in this broad, indefinite conversation. Traits: judgment, integrity, dependability, initiative, courage (a few simple ones from the USMC) all have a significant place at points and time. Principles: know yourself and seek self-improvement, set the example, seek and take responsibility, make sound and timely decisions (also from the USMC) are in there, as are “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” and “Thou shall not steal.” Honor, Courage, Commitment, and Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful) again, from the USMC; in there. Compassion, self-discipline, doing the right thing even when no one is looking, “look twice before you leap,” charity, humility, passion, love, ambition . . . All of these are involved with parenting and they are also found in parts and degrees within nearly every leadership conversation otherwise.

The most powerful gift we can ever bring into the leadership environment is critical thinking. I want to teach the men and women under my charge how to think, not what to think. Then, saturate them with opportunities to practice.

I almost never tell my children “No.” Doing so destroys imagination, stymies growth, and stifles individuality. I always engage in discussion the ‘why’, anticipated outcomes, possible alternative options, counterpoints, or explore the ‘how’. “Dad, can I do this?”

Well, why do you want to do that? What do you think it will cost? What are the benefits and some of the disadvantages? What will you need to accomplish this? How does it affect others? If you do this, does it prevent you from doing something else you might value? What are your expectations? OK sure, but these are some things you might need to think about to achieve the results you are expecting. There are endless other stimulating curiosities you could engage with to develop critical thinking while at the same time driving towards an answer other than “No.” This process demands a caring, compassionate, competent, consistent, and committed Leader.

Turning Crisis Into Positive Communication

I remember a conversation I had with my daughter a few years ago. She was 15 or 16 at the time, living with her mother in Iceland. She was having a bit of a rough patch with school and boys and whatnot. She said, “Dad, I want to move to America and live with you.” Of course I wanted to say “yes” (with all my heart), but I knew the answer was intricately more complicated. My response was deliberate and methodical; not jumping into questions about what was wrong followed with answers on how to fix them. I simply started by asking, “What do we need to think about and do in order to make this happen? Let’s come up with a plan to accomplish this smart.” From there it opened up a much more positive avenue for communication. I invited myself in and excited her world of possibility. The beginning took shape about making sure we were able to credential her Icelandic academics and test for placement. This opened the door to discuss language proficiency (English was her second language) and even more important to her – how we were going to make sure she was able to keep playing soccer!

We eventually, after a few weeks, got into talking about passports and money, jobs and responsibility, and friends and family. I never gave her answers; instead I pointed her in the direction to search by asking questions, emailing articles, and texting web links. If this was something she wanted to do, she had to learn and earn. I also craftily denied her the fresh, clean escape from her “crisis” she desired without cheating her out of experiencing the developmental process of coping and enduring. I also facilitated making her dreams a legitimate reality. She did end up moving in with us, five years later, and accepted a full scholarship to George Mason University to play soccer and work towards a Bachelor of Science in Biology.

The beauty is that you don’t have to exhaust the developmental conversation; you only need to excite consideration for one item at a time. For me, it then becomes responsive to the conversation and engagement. It is the patience here that gives me an opportunity to see where in the critical thinking process an opening for refinement, mentoring, or finesse presents. I’m not interested in any specific answer and refuse to assume I’m some perfect authority to correct it. I am most concerned with understanding the response. Then, using my experience and maturity, I can influence the environment for my audience with enough freedom of movement to explore, enough restriction to appropriately protect, and look for prudent ways to inject resources. I am now cultivating a process that encourages growth.

When I arrived here with these thoughts, it was later on in my military career and yet very early in my fatherhood role with my youngest two. I’m not sure if that is normal, backwards, or whatnot, but what I am certain of is that as I progress through fatherhood I feel ever more enlightened about leadership. I’ve been asked countless times to share conversations or offer thoughts and recount stories from my service career. I’ve been asked to deliver speeches and lead training exercises or events and endeavors to teach/ train leadership. Every time I stumble for discuss topics to convey the spirit of what I think the Art of Leadership is.

The Art of Leadership

Everyone likes to ask: What are the keys to being a successful leader, What do I attribute any of my success as a leader to, What is the definition of leadership? How can I be a better leader? I’m not sure I have any better answer than what has already been offered by thousands of others. But, I’ve always said that I thought of the Men and Women who I served alongside as Family. Those under my charge as sons and daughters; caring for them as such, while my superiors thinking of me as the same. Some of the most amazing Leaders I’ve been fortunate to experience are tremendous mothers and fathers.

Do I dare offer that the converse holds true?

Originally published at life.spartan.com

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