How moms become good leaders: Let them see you sweat

Conventional wisdom says never let them see you sweat. And, folks talk about transparency in leadership. But, what does that really mean? Well, moms already know.

How I was “schooled” to be more transparent

When my daughters started with their instructor a year ago*, they were both quite fearful. My younger one refused to put her face in the water–even after six months of group swim classes. The instructor we found through friends promised that my girls would learn to swim. I had serious doubts, but gave him a try.

Thankfully, he was right. My younger one now jumps in the pool happily and can even swim under my legs. My older daughter not only swims but knows several strokes: freestyle, the backstroke, the frog kick, the butterfly stroke, and others.

I was so impressed, I joked that I should take a few lessons, too. And then it hit me — I could.

So I asked if I could join my daughters’ lessons. He agreed to teach me, too.

After just one lesson I felt “schooled.”

An old lesson relearned

In addition to learning how to improve my swimming, I was reminded of an old lesson:

Focusing on the process or the progress is often more important than focusing on results or perfection.

My children actually delighted in the fact that I was not a good swimmer:

  • They were proud when they overheard me tell their grandparents and good friends that they were becoming great swimmers and that they could swim much better than I could.
  • When we swam together on various occasions last summer, they relished telling me I was doing the backstroke all wrong, which, by the way, is the only stroke that could get me across the pool.
  • My older one found it especially funny when I attempted to swim like a frog and would then sink, not get very far or not swim for very long. “Try it again, Mommy!” she’d squeal. I’d perform, and she’d laugh … not unlike the way adults ask toddlers to perform their new “tricks.”

Over time, this delight grew into something different.

During the first lesson, after doing just a few laps with a kickboard to focus on kicking harder from my thighs, I was exhausted. The girls saw me out of breath and panting. I turned to them and said, “This is hard work! And, you can both swim farther than me!”

I could see in their faces they knew I knew how hard they have been working.

So, the new twist on the old was realizing how important it is for my children to see me not be perfect at something, then witness my working hard to learn how to improve at it.

Our instructor made me swim a few more laps and then ended the lesson early. I didn’t end up swimming nearly as much as my daughters did during their lessons.

I don’t quite remember how I got through serving or eating dinner that evening. As the girls were getting ready to go to sleep, I was lying horizontally on the bottom bunk of their bed. Instead of my reading books to them, my younger daughter covered me with her blanket and said, “I’ll read to you tonight!” She read me a picture book of which I have no recollection. The girls then woke me up and told me to go to bed! I obeyed, remembering to take an Advil before I slipped into my own bed.

They got a chance to take care of me.

How to take your appreciation to another level

Another twist…before my own swim lessons, I had expressed appreciation for the results — the fact that my children could swim and swim well. Now, however, I express appreciation for the process — how hard they’ve worked to learn how to swim, and how hard they still work.

More important, I express this with fewer words and mainly through action. Again, they know I know how hard it is. They witness my appreciation and respect, and they feel it on a new level. As a result, their pride in their own hard work is deeper than it was before. I have also noticed, that they have been complaining less about how hard swimming is.

This experience has made me wonder:

  • What more can I do (versus say) to show others I appreciate what they do?
  • How else can I grow in my life, instead of just talking about growing?

For example, of course, you should praise and thank your staff or the people you manage. But, “good job!” or “Thank you for your hard work!” focuses on the results. Instead, …

Your turn

Feel free to ask yourself these questions, too. And let me know how you let kids see your effort!

Want more? Check out Carol Dweck‘s work on mindset, and Jessica Lahey‘s book, which is one of my favorite parenting books.

*An older version of this article was first published in 2012.