Parenting and System Leadership: A Common Path to Mastery

By Hal Hamilton

Since I became a live-next-door grandfather, it has occurred to me that the path to personal mastery, common to both parenting and system leadership, is revealing. I notice the following approaches by both parents and leaders:

  1. Make demands.
  2. Figure out shared self-interest.
  3. Facilitate long-term shifts.

Each of these three approaches is necessary, depending upon the moment. As one moves along the progression from one to the next, more awareness is required: awareness of oneself and awareness of others. Increased awareness then becomes a reinforcing feedback loop, embedded in brain function.

When Martin Luther King and his many colleagues demanded integrated lunch counters and the right to vote, they initiated a transformative process. Over time, Dr. King had to figure out how to align with the electoral interests of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and he framed his vision in ways that inspired people everywhere. He used all three approaches.

Making Demands and Making Deals

With my own children in the early years, my instinctive responses were the first two: make demands or negotiate. Even now, when my grandson flings food across the table, I just want him to stop, although, in my better moments, I also want to support him to grow his range of responses when he is perturbed. Luckily, I’ve been able to learn from the patience and self-awareness of his parents and grandmother.

When business leaders set sustainability goals, their first instinct is to deliver results by telling suppliers what to do. One senior executive who helped found Sustainable Food Lab called this “the power of the purchase order.” The assertion of market power can have big effects, but the downside is that although suppliers comply with such demands, they do so with the minimum possible effort. Collaboration with partners can generate more impressive long-term results than can compliance (just as with children).

Leaders of collaboration must knit diverse interests together with a value proposition for each player. The first stage of most such relationships is transactional and requires everyone to win something. Negotiators have to sense what might work for each party. With children, rewards for desirable behaviors can feel like bribes, but most parents prefer rewards over punishments.

Facilitating Shifts in Others Requires Shifts in Us

Parents want more than compliance, however. We want our children to be thoughtful of others, eventually sharing responsibility for the well-being of the whole family, and even the larger community. We know we can’t tell our children how to think or feel, but we can ask good questions and encourage them to be aware of their thoughts and feelings, over time becoming able to step back and cultivate their own inner guidance.

Once I was flattening several boxes for a journey to the recycling center. My then-five-year old grandson wanted one of the boxes for himself, and when I went on flattening them, he turned to me and remarked, “Grandad, you are pushing my button.” He was learning self-awareness as he imitated an adult phrase that he had heard about himself.

Recently I read a couple of books about how our brains can change: Begley (2007) recounts neuroscientists describing to the Dalai Lama how brain structure can evolve with experience and intention; and Kleiner et al (2019) sketch implications of this neural plasticity for management and leadership.[1] Both books argue that when we learn to focus attention and choose behaviors rather than following habitual gut reactions, our chosen habits can become embedded in our brains, in the functions and synapses among brain cells. This is intriguing to me, and hopeful.

As I evolved from my years as a young activist, I had to unlearn righteous indignation. A long time ago, when I helped create a complicated collaboration between tobacco and health interests in Kentucky, I used a guest editorial I wrote for a newspaper to harshly criticize the hypocrisy of our state’s senior senator—feeling totally justified because I had sat in his office and listened to him make a commitment that he then turned around and denied—but after my editorial was published, one of my wiser colleagues told me that I had just damaged a relationship with one of our most important long term allies. I had let my instinctual “lower brain” speak louder than my longer-term more systemic brain. I’m pleased to say that over the years I’ve trained my instinctual responses to be wiser than they used to be (although I’m still a beginner).

There are many pathways to greater awareness and more masterful choices. Over years of carefully facilitated Food Lab learning journeys, hundreds of people have realized their own unexamined assumptions by noticing how others see and hear differently. When we pause for reflection, we allow ourselves to see a question from new angles. For example, learning journeys have enabled corporate executives and farmer leaders to enter into a space of mutual curiosity about pathways out of poverty, and this mutual curiosity has helped propel projects in Latin America and Africa from which many thousands of small farmers have improved their livelihood, and from which major food companies have scaled their commitments.

In addition to learning journeys, extended experience in nature is another foundational move, enabling people to connect sensually and subconsciously to layers of being that our normally busy minds tend to ignore. The power of nature begins with children; Barbara Kiser wrote in Nature (2015) that, “A young child engaged in free play in a grove of trees or under a garden bush experiences a wealth of kinetic, aural, visual and tactile stimulation. These experiences foster a wide array of adaptive responses that provoke curiosity, observation, wonder, exploration, problem-solving and creativity.”[2] Adults benefit in the same ways.

One of my dear friends and colleagues, Ken Leinbach, who founded The Urban Ecology Center that connects urban children to nature, writes about one of his own discoveries this way: “I was already a smart and charismatic communicator. I cried as a guy, was sensitive, listened and led through vulnerability. I actually thought I was in touch with my feelings and took pride in this. The truth is, however, that I had no clue. I was just emotional, not in touch. You can’t know what you don’t know, and you have to learn it when it’s time to learn. My past decade or so has been about learning this new language [of body intelligence]. I still have a way to go, but I am in a completely different place than I was. I’m a very different person. I wasn’t a bad person then, just a different person. Today, my mind and my body intelligences are working together in a way that I never knew could be possible. It sounds so trite, but I think it’s what is meant by finding one’s self. It is so very lovely and enjoyable. It does not mean that everything is roses, as I still have mood swings, depressions, frustrations, reactions and the like, but by better understanding my body’s voice, and aligning it with a wiser mind process (thanks to new tools learned, better listening, etc.) I am so much closer to my real truth on a real time basis. The external result is that I am a much, much, much better leader.”

My own journey has also been about noticing how to notice and what to notice, slowing my busy and rather abstract mind, and opening to many sources of energy. Over the last 20 years I have slowly developed my own daily practice, starting with stream-of-consciousness journaling and now including both Tai Chi and meditation. I frankly wasn’t quite sure why I was doing this or what difference it made, but by now I have received enough feedback from family and colleagues that I know these practices have made a difference. I am learning to notice my own thoughts and feelings and those of others, without judgment but with curiosity, and it is this noticing, or awareness, that is at the center of wise choices as well as creativity.

I’ll add, somewhat parenthetically, that lots of experts and organizations talk about system change and system leadership without much attention to the personal, and I’ve come to think of awareness-based system change as a crucial upgrade. The same can be said of parenting with cultivated awareness and choice of one’s own reactions.

When Costco executive Sheri Flies organized a project in Guatemala with a farmer cooperative supplying produce, she learned that the coop president had lost his son in a way similar to how Sheri lost her brother. Alongside a formal meeting of business leaders and local farmers, she encouraged the coop president to invite them all to a mass in the local Catholic church, and then break bread together. One very senior business guy had not heard a mass in Spanish since his childhood. The emotional bond opened up a shared awareness of what everyone cared most deeply about, and that shared awareness enabled agreement on shifts in the supply chain to raise the livelihood of some of the poorest of the poor. Sheri’s individual awareness of connection, combined with process skills, led to a collective awareness of the realities of growing green beans in the Guatemala Highlands, which then allowed a transactional project to become a transformational project.

Cultivating awareness is lifelong, deeply personal, and intellectually rigorous. This path of personal mastery makes us better people, better parents, better leaders. Happier too.

We will continue to make demands and negotiate shared interests, when appropriate, and we will also be ever more capable of nurturing shifts from old habits of thought and action to new habits that draw from everyone’s very best.

[1] The Wise Advocate, by Kleiner, Schwartz, and Thomson, 2019; Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Begley, 2007

[2] Nature volume 523, pages 286–289 (16 July 2015)

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