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Sharing Our Authentic Work Lives with Our Children

teen parade 2006

This past spring, for the third year in a row, I ran a Leadership Academy for high school sophomores. As part of the Academy, we brought in leaders from all types of organizations--business, government, nonprofits, media--and let the kids do a sort of "speed-dating" meeting with them. Students got to ask questions and interact in small groups with each of the leaders.

When I did the group debrief at the end about what students had learned, they told me their biggest lesson was that most of these people had been confused. That there hadn't been some sort of straight-line, fully conscious trajectory into their careers as leaders, but more a lot of meandering and discovery and wondering about where to go next. To these students, this was eye-opening. They were normally presented with the perceived perfection of the final product--"a leader"--and had no insight into the actual process that had gone into creating that leader, with all its messiness and confusion. 

What struck me is that there's a strong need for us to share with our young people, whenever we come into contact with them, not just the end result of our efforts--"I am a leader, pay attention"--but the process we go through to get there.

They need to see and feel our own uncertainty and confusion about our careers and our experiences at work. They need to hear us talk about and process our moral and professional dilemmas, the questions that keep us up at night. They need to see what we go through to reach decisions and to work with teams of people very different from ourselves. It is not the product that provides the learning, but the actual process we go through that teaches them.

It is the difference between showing a painting and showing how to paint. 

This, of course, can also teach us too, because it forces us to reflect on what we do and how we do it--the essence of reflective practice. Through the process of story and making our work lives more explict to our children, we also make things more explicit to ourselves. We are able to better understand our actions, what worked and what didn't. Through our children's questions, we may also arrive at clearer knowledge of WHY we make certain choices, why we do what we do. 

As work becomes ever more complex, requiring thinking and emotional skills beyond what we've had to use at work in the past, I think we owe it to both our children and ourselves to do a better job of sharing our authentic work lives with them. We can help them better understand that work life is different than what they have experienced in school and that being a leader is a process, not a result. 

This feels to me like one of the most important things we can do for our kids. So how do we do it better? 

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