What Playdates and Timers Taught Me About Leadership

Toddlers having a playdate

Hindsight works, even when applied to things only vaguely remembered.  My pre-school playdates were usually brokered by my parents and those of my “guest.”  I also remember my mom suggesting I “exchange phone numbers” with other kids. I thought it was confusing and not very useful – thinking I was to tell my friends to call the other person instead of me (i.e. literally exchanging numbers).  Mom quickly clarified the operational definition of “exchanging numbers,” and how it would make having the playdate easier.

After a few playdates, my mom laid out the game plan: She calmly and clearly explained what we were going to do. For the first hour of the two hour event (good playdates like productive meetings shouldn’t go over two hours), mom set  a timer which put me at the mercy of my guest who decided what  we would do during that time.  If she wanted to make arts and crafts, play with dolls, create something on the computer or play a game – it was up to her.  As a gracious host, I was supposed to ensure that she knew all the available options. She got to set the direction and had veto power over me. If we were on the computer she could decide what game or activity we would do.  If we were playing with dolls and we couldn’t come to an agreement on a doll’s life choices (what to wear, what career, is Barbie still with Ken?) I was to yield to her decisions.  Finally, the second hour rolled around and I had the opportunity to decide on our activities and make the final decisions, but mom emphasized the importance of making sure my guest was having a good time.  Because I had short blonde bob-styled hair and frequently watched the popular 1980’s dramedy, Moonlighting, I often fancied myself as a future Cybill Shepard/Madelyn Hayes.  My activities often involved pretending that we were co-executives at an important company – often one involving fashion, toys, or being the “boss of a hospital,” which was my number one career goal at age 5 (I watched a little St. Elsewhere too).

What was the reasoning for the change in playdate direction after my first few dates as hostess?  Well, I didn’t find out until several years later, but as my mom tried to broker additional playdates she started hearing “no’s” from parents.  My mom has a gift for asking direct questions and politely interrogating rooting out the answers to things, and she was eventually told that “Jennie was too bossy” during the last playdate.  This was a couple decades before consciousness-raising by Sheryl Sandberg caused parents to question calling a young girl “bossy.” My mom then went through a series of amicable but intense negotiations to procure another playdate, finding out exactly what went wrong the first time, and assuring the parent that while mistakes were made, the next playdate would be a complete turnaround.

Leadership Theory

This early experience, particularly as an only-child, was a transformational lesson in how to build relationships, share the spotlight, and lead others.  Lots of years, and a couple of degrees in psychology later, I can reflect and fully appreciate how events early in my life continue to influence my mindset.  One key takeaway of leadership theory and research is that each situation is unique, and to be effective we must be willing to adapt our behavior, remain open to new ways of thinking, and do our best to understand the thoughts, wants, and emotions of others.  Children hosting friends at their homes are leaders, albeit inexperienced ones.  The leader knows the lay of the land, what is allowed and what is not, and largely influences the experience of the followers. As an only child who mostly interacted with her parents and was allowed to play what and how she wanted, hosting a friend at my home required a complete shift in my awareness of the thoughts, wants, and emotions of others.  Something as simple as setting a timer sparked my mindfulness and ability to adapt to the needs of others.  I also became more open-minded:  learning new ways of approaching the world – even in a child’s world that mostly involved play.

Great leaders aren’t born, but made.  As leaders in my childhood and adolescence, my parents continually reinforced expectations for friendship and serving others.  Just as an organization’s leaders and culture influence the choices and behaviors of its employees, my parents’ values and beliefs shaped my values and expectations as an adult.  While I may not agree with all that they said or did, it was clear they thought mindfully about the end goal ‑ the kind of person they wanted me to become ‑ and parented in ways that would lead to this goal.

Next Steps

This is the same challenge leader’s face.  What do you want to achieve?  What are your organization’s values and what does this mean for the expectations you set for others?  Only with those clarified and in place can you begin to intentionally create the “timers” needed to encourage your team and put you on a path to excellence.

How do you begin charting a path for your team? Your organization’s values and expectations form the foundation of its culture. Learn how to analyze and understand your organization’s culture by downloading our What is Organizational Culture? Whitepaper.

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