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Family Leadership


Leadership in the Family
by A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
(Note: This article first appeared as part of Dr. Schuler’s monthly leadership e-Newsletter, “What’s Up, Doc?”)

The lessons of leadership apply not only to our organizations and community associations, but also to the family unit. Here are a few ideas and tips that flow from the study of organizations - including the family as an organization.

Let me start with a disclaimer:  the point of view that I’m describing here is NOT meant to replace any person’s religious or other closely held conviction.  Please take what you may useful in what’s here and discard the rest – I certainly mean no offense to anyone’s sensibilities or beliefs, and I understand that ideas of “the family” can be fraught with controversy, depending on one’s point if view. I write here as a psychologist and student of effective organizations.

The purpose of a family is to support the growth and development of its members.
This is true for all family constellations, including traditional families of two biological parents and their offspring, as well as other varieties more common today.  All members of the family should have their growth, development and health supported through the medium of the family, even the adults.  Obviously, children have greater and more immediate needs, generally speaking, and it is best if adults choose to have children once they are mature and strong enough to defer their more personal, individual needs enough to attend to those of the children first.  While all members have material needs that are likely to be met through the family – needs for food and shelter – all members also have personal and emotional needs to be met through the family as well – needs for understanding, support, encouragement and the development of individual talents among them. 

Leadership in the family involves balancing the needs of all members at the same time.
Note that this point of view explicitly includes provision for the needs of adults, while many ideas of the family speak as if the sole purpose of a family is to provide exclusively for the needs of children.  But some families do not include children, either because all the children are now adults or due to other choices or circumstances.  Those families are still families, and whether or not children are present, leadership in the family involves the exercise of some balance so that the needs of all members can be met as well and as creatively as possible at all times – that’s the hard part!

In healthy families with children, adults gain support from other adults and not primarily from children.
Yes, it’s great when a child comes over to an adult after a particularly long day and says, “I love you, Mommy,” sensing perhaps that Mom needs a hug.  This is a great developmental exercise of empathy on the child’s part, and a sign of healthy growth.  But adult parents, ideally, should be able to support each other well enough personally to be able to draw on each other for support and strength so that children can feel secure in their environment.  This is what creates the conditions for healthy child development, and adults make a potentially grave error when they garner too much personal support from their children, rather than from other adults or adult partners. It can be tough for single parents to find other adult support, but friends and other adult family members can play a positive, healthy role in supporting single parents and, by proxy, their children.  No matter what the family type, leadership in the family means letting the kids be kids so that adult fears and tensions can be handled together by other adults.

Families can get off track when the needs of at least one adult begin to dominate those of other family members.
At any given moment in time, one family member’s needs might dominate, for example, when someone is ill and requiring immediate medical care.  But generally speaking, healthy, functioning families maintain a balance, while problem families do not.  Literature is replete with examples of families that get off track.  I’m suddenly thinking of an older movie with Harrison Ford, called “Mosquito Coast,” where the father’s ideal of living a certain kind of ideologically inspired, reclusive life blinded him to the needs of his children to grow socially and interact with non-family members. Sometimes the needs of adults to have their families adhere to a preconceived ideal, however worthy, can interfere with a child’s (particularly an adolescent’s) need to go out into the world and learn some things on their own, mistakes and all.  Leadership in the family involves, sometimes, knowing when to let go, while it also requires that we teach children when to defer to the needs of others, including their siblings, no matter what their immediate wants may be.  This is part of the role of families with children to prepare those children for adult membership in civil society.

Families can also get off track when the needs of one child or all children begin to dominate those of other family members.
This can be occur, for example, when one child in the family has special needs or developmental disabilities that require special care and attention, as in the film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (which also, come to think of it, represents an example of a family with an adult member whose needs begin to dominate those of other members, as in the discussion above).  When a family with a special needs child struggles to maintain a healthy balance, outside resources and supports may be needed, as long as those supports are well chosen (these are always hard choices, and can include extended family members, of course, as part of the solution).  But the point I want to make here is to say that there are times when the adult leader or leaders of a family need their own time.  Adult partner/parents need time for each other to continue to get to know and understand each other outside of the context of their roles as parents, to renew and keep their relationships alive, in order to meet their own mutual growth and support needs, and also to provide the kind of strong foundation that allows for healthy child growth and development. Not to take such time, through whatever form it may take, is to fail in the family leadership role.  The balancing act of family leadership requires attention to all members, and not just to children.  How often have we seen married partners become strangers to each other over the years as children grow, so that the relationship founders or ends when the nest becomes empty – or even sooner?

Having a wider mission or purpose can be an aid to healthy family life.
Purely from my own observation, I find that families of all kinds tend to do better when they are animated by some purpose greater than themselves, without sacrificing their own essential growth needs. I’ve seen couples without children do very well when their relationships are animated by some common purpose, set of values or shared enterprise – for example, the owning and running of a bed and breakfast that provides hospitality and comfort to guests, and a medium for the expression of both partners’ talents, while also paying the couple’s bills, etc.  Healthy intimate, partnered relationships may begin well through the usual (or unexpected!) attractions and desires, but they often are helped to last over time when they are founded on some shared sense of purpose that transcends the couple. 

For many couples, the raising of children provides that purpose – sometimes a bit sooner than they may have planned! But for childless couples, too, some other jointly shared creative enterprise, mission or activity can help keep both partners growing together, challenging each other, discovering each other, etc.  Even families with children fare better when children are raised with some set of values that transcends mere self-interest.  While religious identity or conviction can often supply this ingredient, from my observations, non-religious, altruistic or creative endeavors can also perform the same function.  (Note: I am not here trying to make any judgments, or political or religious statements, pro or con – I’m just trying to offer some of what I believe I see as an observer of families as organizations, speaking also as a trained psychologist.) 

Often, these “wider missions” can emerge organically from the relationship of the two intimate/married partners involved, whether they are recognized or not.  But I sometimes wonder how much leadership in the family might be helped at times by articulating, or trying to make explicit, what those wider values or missions might be, in answer to the questions, “What are we about?  What do we believe in?”  The answers to such questions can be helpful guideposts for all involved in the family, as long as the answers do not become rigid clubs used in the end to stifle the continuing growth and development of all family members.  Values statements, like a good mission statement for a corporation, should be  relevant enough to add meaning and context in specific situations while broad enough to remain applicable through changing times and circumstances.

Copyright (c) 2003 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
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