As I slogged through 43 Valentine’s Day cards—signing one for each classmate of my sons age 8 and 5—I thought of my own Moscow childhood when my parents relied on my help with their quotidian tasks way more often than propping me up in mine. I also recalled the hundreds of business leaders we at ghSMART have advised and studied, like Matt, Mary and Jeff, all people whose parents wouldn’t have dreamed of rushing to lighten the load of their children.
I met Matt in 2015, when he was interviewing for the CEO job in a company I was engaged to advise. Matt recalled his childhood in our four-hour conversation, and told me how his father gave him the daily responsibility of turning on the equipment at their family-owned construction business. It meant getting up much earlier than his high-school classmates, and doing real work before the start of his own school day.
Matt knew that his family counted on him to get the job done and he rose to the occasion. When a wildfire broke out near their California residence, he was home alone. He relied on his instincts and did what needed to be done. “I got the animals out, put horses in a van, closed up the house as best I could and drove 30 miles,” he recalled. “And after that I called my parents to tell them everything was okay.”
Today Matt is a chief executive officer at a company manufacturing automotive fuel delivery systems. Customers, employees, and investors depend on him to deliver, come hell or high water – much like his family did in those early years. He credits that callow experience of shouldering real family responsibilities for his professional success.
As our ghSMART team conducted over 17,000 in-depth assessments of a wide range of business leaders to support our clients’ succession, hiring and investment decisions, we came across many stories like Matt's among those who have risen to the top. Ten years ago, we launched the CEO Genome Project in partnership with leading academics and data miners to analyze what makes a successful CEO. Our analysis uncovered that unfailingly reliable leaders like Matt, who were ready to be counted on for the toughest tasks, proved twice as likely to get hired into CEO roles and an astonishing fifteen times more likely to succeed.
Poring over the data, we were also struck by the gaping disconnect between the patterns we saw in the childhood of today’s successful leaders and the typical middle-class parenting style in America today. Our findings have alarmed us, so much so that we wonder how the over-parented children of today will grow into reliable leaders of tomorrow.
Matt's parents raised a future CEO by taking an approach that was exactly the opposite of what many parents do today. The role of children in families has evolved over the last few generations: Once a source of free labor, they are now treated as precious plants to be tended carefully lest they fail to bloom to their full potential. Eager to raise our children just right, we stand at the ready to swoop in and resolve almost any problem and discomfort. Conflict with a teacher? We’re on it. Child forgot a schoolbook at home? We run breathless to deliver it. Conflict with a classmate? Moms promptly arrange an emergency “coffee” date to work it out for their kids.
It is becoming clear, however, that in our zeal to give our children every opportunity to grow into thriving adults, we deprive them of a vital ingredient: the space to make mistakes and suffer consequences, and in the process to learn to rely on themselves and grow into highly reliable adults.
This isn’t just an airy assertion. Over and over, the business leaders we interviewed shared foundational stories of how the seeds of future success were sowed in childhood. They forged the skills needed to succeed not from carefully curated enrichment classes or parental intervention during a crisis but, rather, from what they learned on their own, when their parents would not (or could not) assist. Sometimes exhilarating, often chaotic, and sometimes disconcerting, it was their autonomous childhood experiences that gave them the coping skills and resilience to take on the toughest challenges today.
For Mary, childhood tragedy was the crucible for adult character. Mary’s father died when she was eight, leaving the family in dire financial straits. The second of eight children, she became the caregiver to her siblings – three of them still in diapers – while her mother was working to make ends meet. “I was a little mom,” she says. “I took on responsibility for others at a young age.” The need to oversee others in her own childhood helped her build the fortitude, self-reliance and reliability to navigate the pressures of the automotive industry in her professional life.
Mary lost her father, and so had quasi-adulthood thrust upon her even before puberty. But one need not endure tragic adversity to grow into a reliable adult. Regular daily life presents abundant opportunity to acquire self-reliance, if only children are given the space to deal with responsibilities and overcome obstacles.
Take Jeff, now a chief operating officer at one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he joined the Boy Scouts. At 14, he was involved in a Scout community service project to build enclosures for wounded animals at a nature center. When his family relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, the adolescent Jeff was determined to finish his project. He persuaded his parents to allow him to take the 6 ½ hour bus ride by himself between the two cities. His mom and dad didn’t drive him there, and they didn’t coach him through his commitment either. His reliability was a self-driven quest. “It was almost a mission,” he recalled three decades later. “They counted on me. I needed to do it.”
Stories like Matt’s, Mary’s and Jeff’s echo my own childhood. Growing up in Soviet-era Moscow as a latchkey kid, I traveled to and from school alone from the age of nine – a 45-minute ride each way on a packed public bus and a trolley-car. I still feel a pit in my stomach thinking back to the long winter evenings – it got dark at 4pm – anxiously waiting for my parents to get home from work. Alone and afraid in the apartment, I had to create the scaffolding to hold me up. So, I set myself a rule: “Do not worry until it’s 7PM,” the time at which my parents were expected to return.
Chores and responsibilities were my best coping mechanism. My family counted on me to get things done. Dishes had to be washed. Dinner had to be warm by the time my parents got home. Homework had to be done. I had to work no matter how bad I felt. Learning to power through fear, loneliness and anxiety and complete tasks that others counted on me to do gave me the resilience to emigrate alone to the United States at the age of 19 and to tackle other challenges that have come my way since then.
Research shows that grit and self-reliance are key to adult success. But we can’t simply wish those virtues into our children or conjure them from heavily supervised routines. We need to create space for children to develop their muscles of autonomy over time. Children gain the confidence to rely on themselves – and hence become reliable for others – when given the opportunity to … rely on themselves.
As children cope with tasks unaided, mistakes are inevitable, and these are an important fuel for their future success. Analysis for our CEO Genome project showed that leaders who viewed mistakes as learning opportunities rather than shameful failures were twice as likely to succeed. Those leaders got practice making painful errors in their early years, dusting themselves off and moving on. Every time we protect our kids from a mortifying stumble we deprive them of a chance to strengthen the very faculties they need for future success, all but ensuring that our sons and daughters will be stunted in important ways.
Could it be that we’re failing our children as parents at the very moments when we try our hardest? And that the moments when we fail to be there for them – when we beat ourselves up for not measuring up to parenting standards—are exactly the episodes of adversity our children need to thrive as adults? The forgotten school lunch turns into an opportunity for my 5-year-old to seek help from his teacher and classmates – and to eat food he would otherwise avoid. Being away on business on the day when my 8-year-old needs help with a homework project turns into an opportunity for him to struggle, grapple with dismay, and then discover that the world didn’t come to an end.
To be clear, I am not advocating neglect or child abandonment, but a certain amount of constructive distance. To develop capable, self-reliant leaders, parents need to give their children both a firm source of support and love – something psychologists call the secure-base effect – and space to learn self-reliance.
It’s not a coincidence that the time-tested stories abound with heroes and heroines who learn to take on the world alone, and emerge triumphant, frequently through painful missteps. The way orphans—or children whose parents exist “off-stage”—navigate the difficulties of life on their own is what turns them into the figures we know and love. Conspicuously absent from Charles Dickens, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, is a helicopter parent rushing in to save the day and make the protagonist feel better. In fact, a wide range of leaders I have spoken to have all attributed their ability to cope with challenges to their experience as children who were not over-parented.
In the age of competitive parenting writ large, it’s hard to follow these lessons when it comes to our own children. I did, alas, succumb to the Valentine’s card racket. Why? I hated to disappoint my children or their friends. And there was too much peer pressure to imagine my kids being the only ones not to offer their classmates that mandatory red heart.
When we rush to our children’s aid at the slightest sight of adversity, we do it out of love and desire to help, and a fear of losing out in the parenting arms race where everyone does more and more for their kids. The result is that we send our children the message that their own skills are not adequate, and that they don’t possess what it takes to overcome adversity. Unsurprisingly, medical studies of college undergraduates have shown that an increase in depression is at least in part attributable to a decline in young people’s sense of personal control over their own fate. And this sense must have some of its roots, surely, in the near-extinction of unsupervised play among children, overscheduled and overparented in their earliest school grades.
Like every generation before us, we are leaving our children a heavy inheritance of a world that feels more dauntingly complex and challenging than ever. From AI to global warming to the $4 trillion deficit, our children will have to contend with formidable challenges that will take fortitude and leadership to conquer. We need strong adults who want to be counted on by others, not people paralyzed with anxiety because they haven’t got their parents around to help them.
Elena Lytkina Botelho is a leadership advisor at ghSMART and the coauthor (with Kim Rosenkoetter Powell) of THE CEO NEXT DOOR: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders (Crown/Currency; March 6, 2018). Ms. Powell and Sumona De Graaf, a principal at ghSMART, assisted in the writing of this essay.
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