Working parents who have the privilege of working from home during this pandemic nonetheless face incredible challenges trying to do so while also managing full-time childcare and the frustrations of online school. This is hard. As working-from-home parents ourselves, we know that. And it is bound to be a time of impatience, sadness and fear.
At the same time, there are things parents working from home can do now to find more purpose, peace and joy. Our research, coaching, consulting and advocacy show that when working parents cultivate and practice leadership skills, they can make things better, for themselves and for others, even under the most challenging circumstances.
There is an ample body of research on what the best leaders know and do that empowers them to make meaningful change and inspire commitment and support from those around them. Here, we translate that research into practical steps any working parent can take right now.
Face reality head on
In times of crisis, the best leaders don’t just bury their heads in the sand and hope things turn out well; nor do they feign unshakeable confidence and certainty. As a working parent, explore how you can address the reality of our current situation without leaning too far towards the extremes of total denial or false hubris. Consider how you’ve been managing your exposure to pandemic-related content and try to find a formula that works for you. Perhaps even more importantly, think about how you’ll discuss this information with those around you – your children need your courage and honesty, but not panic or pretense.
Imagine a better future
Just because leaders are willing to acknowledge difficult realities, it doesn’t mean they wallow in pessimism. Leaders inspire others by helping them see the possibility of a better future. Consider how you might grow stronger, closer and kinder as a result of this pandemic. Imagine how we might change as a society – whether it’s feeling more connected to our communities or more fully appreciating the contributions of essential workers. Communicating a vision of a better future serves as a north star to help those around you summon the courage and camaraderie needed to move through difficult times together.
Clarify what matters most
It is impossible for working parents to maintain their pre-pandemic levels of work efficiency while providing full-time parenting. Priorities have changed. The best leaders choose their responses to challenging circumstances based on their values. Knowing you can’t do it all, clarify the values and relationships that matter most to you at this time. Difficult though it may be, accept that perfection isn't possible now (and, let’s be honest, never is) and focus attention on what matters most to you and those around you, at work and at home.
Get on the same page
We’re all operating based on a set of assumptions about how we’re supposed to approach this new normal – including how we allocate our time, energy and attention to work, parenting, chores and taking care of our own mental and physical health. Yet, we’re doing so based on our assumptions about what the people in our lives expect and want from us. The best leaders clarify these assumptions with their people. Rather than operate on your assumptions about what your partner, children and colleagues expect from you, ask questions. Find out what’s going well and what isn’t. Share your own perspective and inquire with compassion about theirs. This not only cultivates closeness but also reveals new approaches to dealing with this uncertain time that you might not have considered otherwise.
We don’t have a roadmap for how to get through this period of physical distancing, remote work and home schooling. New situations require new approaches. Effective leaders don’t settle for the status quo in the face of changed circumstances. They adapt, innovate and iterate. Consider how you can try creative ways to get things done. A silver-lining of this pandemic is that we are upending our routines and habits, which creates a natural opportunity to reflect and consciously choose new ways of doing things, and be open to adapting if they’re not working. There’s no right way to navigate these unchartered waters, but if you get creative, you might find ways that work better for you, your family and your work.
Acting like a leader during perilous times is far easier said than done. However, our research suggests that when working parents cultivate their leadership skills, the benefits outweigh the inherent costs of reflecting, talking and experimenting. When you step back for a moment to consider it, you likely have more freedom than you might have thought to change how you approach life and work in these torn and troubled times.
Stewart Friedman is a professor at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and Alyssa Westring is an associate professor of management at Driehaus College of Business, DePaul University. They are also co-authors of Parents Who Lead