Parents Who Lead: An Interview With Award-Winning Professor and Bestselling Author Dr. Stewart Friedman

Stewart D. Friedman is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Friedman is also the founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program, the founding director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project, the creator of the concept of Total Leadership and author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, and the Thinkers50 2015 Distinguished Achievement Award winner as the world’s foremost expert in the field of talent.

Dr. Friedman’s new book, PARENTS WHO LEAD: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Lifeco-authored with Alyssa Westring, Associate Professor of Management at DePaul University—just released! We had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Friedman about his new book, fatherhood, what great leaders and great dads have in common, work/life integration, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with the Dr. Stewart Friedman!

Your new book Parents Who Lead shows parents how to conquer overwhelm and thrive in all aspects of life—work, home, community, and the private self. Which exercises or ideas from the book do you see readers find the most benefit from and rave about?

There are 24 exercises in the book, all based on our research and illustrated with gripping stories of real working parents from our lab.  The one that stands out as making the biggest impact is what we call the collective leadership vision. We ask each member of the parenting partnership (and these, of course, come in a variety of forms), on their own, to write a short description of an ideal day, 15 years from now.  What happens in the morning, afternoon, and evening?  Who are you with and what’s the impact you’re having?  What, in other words, is the legacy you’re creating?  Then we invite them to compare notes, talk it over, and come up with a shared picture of their ideal future.  It’s a simple, powerful method for consciously identifying the common ground you’re walking together and it makes all kinds of decisions – large and small – a lot easier to make when you consider each choice in the grand scheme of what you value as a family.

You’ve been researching and writing about leadership and work/life integration for over three decades. What were some of the great new discoveries and insights you came across in the process of writing this book?

There have been many new discoveries in the Parents Who Lead project, but my favorite is about how much parents have to gain by learning how to listen, with leadership skill, to their children about what they really need.  It’s often quite surprising to hear what’s actually on their minds and how you can be a better leader in your family when you know what in the hearts and minds of those precious people who look up to you.  One father, who was keen to impress upon his son the value of curiosity and study, asked him what he was interested in learning.  To his utter delight, his son said, “I want to learn to vacuum.”  His son wanted to be useful; he wanted to contribute and have a purpose himself. You don’t really know, in other words, what’s inside until you pay attention, with dedication and compassion, like effective leaders do.

You talk about how what defines great leaders at work is surprisingly relevant to being a great parent. What are some of those skills and traits that dads might be surprised to learn?

Leadership is about mobilizing people toward valued goals, seeing the realities of today and envisioning a better tomorrow.  Effective leaders know what matters to them, know who matters and seek to build trust, and continually experiment with better ways to get things done.  Working fathers and mothers face these same leadership challenges as they strive to construct a strong foundation on which the next generation can stand. In some ways, parents do this intuitively, but they find it helpful to have it made clear.

You’ve also researched and written about many of the people throughout history who debunk the mythology that you have to trade your personal and family life in order to have career success as a leader. Who are some of your favorites? How have they influenced your own approach to work/life integration?

In one of my other Harvard Business books, Leading the Life You Want, I profiled six exemplary leaders and described how they illustrated the principles of being real, being whole, and being innovative.  I explained the skills they used to bring these principles to life, in each their own distinctive way, to show how it’s possible to learn leadership. My favorite of these six original case studies was about Bruce Springsteen.  He’s a great example of someone who is who is he no matter where he is, who makes it clear what he expects of himself and of the important people in his life, and who continually experiments with new ways of doing things.  I try, in my own way, to do the same.

What books and writers have most influenced the way you think and the way you live?

As an undergraduate student (at a state university in NY), I majored in Psychology and minored in literature.  I love novels and so many have shaped my thinking about how to live.  But the most powerfully direct impact on my philosophy of leadership and life came from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which shows how our survival depends on our ability to escape our own pain by serving the needs of others.  He learned this from his holocaust experience and the illustrative lessons are indelibly etched in my soul.

Any final words of advice to all the dads out there?

I’m almost 68 and my three children are in their 20’s and 30’s.  For decades I’ve researched, taught, coached, spoken about, and advocated for change in making things better for working parents and their children.  I was pretty good, when the kids were young, at bounding time for them but, looking back, I regret that I didn’t do more, better.  So, my advice to fathers is this:  Pay as much attention to each child as you possibly can.  Every second you do so produces some kind of miracle.

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