5 Key Lessons a 9-Year-Old Can Teach Us About Life and Leadership

Whether or not you have kids, they can provide us with incredible life lessons. My 9-year old son, Peyton, has gifted me with some incredible lessons lately that have been invaluable for me – personally and professionally. As I work with teams and coach people to be more effective, I realize that the lessons he has taught me are applicable to so many. So in the spirit of helping to create more human workplaces and have people show up more fully in their lives, I’m sharing what I’ve learned. First, let me provide some context…

I’m an ongoing recovering perfectionist. And anyone who knows me knows that another ongoing challenge I face is working too much. I will be good for a while at setting healthy boundaries and being intentional; and then I find myself in Wonder Woman mode where I take on too much and then need to course-correct.

At the end of 2018 my “downward spiral” commenced. We had just experienced incredible success with our inaugural Fusion 2.0 Conference, with people writing us “love letters” thanking us and asking us when we’re going to do it again; yet we had incredible debt to cover to pay for the conference, as we funded it ourselves. We had also just entered into our publishing agreement to write our new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace, and signed on some of our largest consulting contracts to-date. All good things, right? Yes. And it triggered my do-it-all superhero mode for most of 2019.

The reality is that I had more work than a normal human could actually accomplish – and that was just my “day job” responsibilities with culture transformation, leadership development, coaching, and more. Add on speaking engagements, writing the book, becoming one of Brené Brown’s Certified Dare to Lead Facilitators and launching that work, creating and launching a new facilitator training for one of our team-based leadership programs, trying to figure out how to make another Fusion 2.0 Conference happen, and more, and I was on overload much of the year. My hyper-productive self served me well to accomplish a lot, yet it had its costs.

I sacrificed a lot of sleep in 2019 – staying up late and getting up early to get work done. I was hit-or-miss many weeks with my workouts (yet sweaty workouts are a key thing that helps me maintain my sanity and show up as my best). I got behind on many things, and found myself not honoring time I had carved out for reflection and personal growth. I wasn’t spending as much time with my friends. And I just kept pushing myself, holding onto a narrative that I couldn’t let all of these people down who were counting on me.

Then, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Peyton unknowingly began teaching me valuable lessons. You see, he was having a difficult pre-tween day with lots of hormones and emotions. Regardless, he stopped me dead in my tracks during one of his meltdowns when he blurted out to me, “You never want to spend time with me…all you want to do is work!” OUCH! He was getting the leftover version of me, while everyone else was getting the best version of me.

Since that moment, these invaluable lessons have unfolded and have been incredibly transformative.

Lesson 1: We can always hit a “Reset” button

I stopped what I was doing the second Peyton had his outburst. I didn’t make excuses; I sat next to him with tears in my eyes and apologized to him. I told him that, while there were reasons this past year I’ve had to work so much, I NEVER want him to think he is less important. I thanked him for being open and honest with me and told him it was time for a reset.

  • I promised to not work in the evenings or weekends as much as possible (and I’ve honored that)
  • I committed to taking control of my calendar and being more realistic about how I schedule things
  • I pushed out some projects where I realized I just don’t have the bandwidth to do right now
  • I had level-setting conversations with people to re-clarify agreements, timing and more

Hitting the reset button isn’t an overnight process, but it can be done. Many times we may think we’re too far down one path to course-correct now. But if we keep going in a direction that doesn’t serve us well, the costs of NOT resetting are far greater. Are you showing up as the best version of yourself where it truly matters, or are you leaving the leftover version for people who deserve more?

Resetting our priorities and approach is an important life and leadership skill we will need to activate over and over. We can always circle back, clean up our messes, and start a new path. Yes, it will likely be messy. But the intentionality serves us much better in the long run – and gives others permission to be imperfect and do the same.
A couple of weeks ago, Peyton was sick and missed two days of school. I received an email from his teacher the following week that he was struggling and seemed overwhelmed with his make-up work. So I canceled my afternoon appointment with zero apologies and picked him up 90 minutes early. We sat at home and I supported him through his homework before we went to dinner with friends. By the time we were done, he was caught up and relieved; he thanked me and hugged me. I told him that as soon as I heard he was struggling I re-prioritized to help him and reminded him that he can always talk to us if he’s feeling overwhelmed or stressed. He is now getting the best version of me instead of the leftovers.

Lesson 2: There are no shortcuts; we have to wade in the messy middle

There is no fast-forward button when it comes to growth, development and change. Resetting priorities is important; and there is messiness that goes with it. I knew that I’d have a good three months of “fallout” as I tried to take my schedule back and create a more sustainable existence. I’ve become painfully aware of what my bandwidth actually is. For an overachiever, saying “no”, pushing out start dates, asking others to step up, and asking for help are uncomfortable. I’ve had to challenge my own self-limiting assumptions and lean on the work I’ve previously done on myself and guide my clients through to wade through the messy middle so I don’t repeat past mistakes. And I’ve had to let myself process the feelings of guilt, sadness and overwhelm at the same time; pretending they don’t exist isn’t helpful.

One of the things I know about myself is that, when I get stressed and overwhelmed, my go to armor (i.e., self-protective behaviors) is to hide out and share less of myself, get into pain-in-the-ass hyper-productive mode, and try to hold everything together myself. Instead, I’ve been real with people about my reset and how hard it is, and I’ve been reaching out to others. Not long ago, I kind of fell apart with my husband and told him how overwhelmed I’m feeling with my reset and settling into a new normal. It’s uncomfortable to let go of our self-protective armor; yet it’s energizing and freeing and builds empathy and connection. You know what? People aren’t judging; they’re rallying and supporting me to step into my greatness.

Just the other day I was coaching a leader who has been putting on a brave face for years rather than dealing with the deaths of some loved ones; and it’s starting to surface. We had a great discussion about needing to give herself permission (and counseling support) to feel and work through her grief; the only path to the other side is for her to go through the painful, messy middle. People can only stuff their feelings and armor up for so long before something has to give. We have to face the things that scare us or challenge us the most. We have to work through the discomfort, sadness, shame, pain, etc.; we can’t simply try to go around it and hope it will go away.

Lesson 3: Effective feedback is a gift – and necessary for growth

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have with individuals and teams every week about feedback. If no one lets us know the impact we’re having (positively or negatively), we have no idea if we’re showing up in a way we intend or need to course-correct. Collectively, we are deprived of recognition; we want to hear when we’re making a positive difference. And we are even more deprived of authentic, clear feedback that helps us address blind spots, get out of our own way, and grow.

Beating around the bush, sugar-coating or avoiding difficult feedback helps no one. As much as it can sting to receive feedback on where we’re falling short, not showing up as our best selves, or not having the impact we desire, it is a gift. It means people care about us enough to illuminate our blind spots for us and give us an opportunity to wade in the messy middle to reset and course-correct. When feedback is clear, direct and coming from a place of heart, it gives us the opportunity to pause, self-reflect and get off auto-pilot and an unproductive path to decide what direction to take from there.

One fantastic tool to use to frame feedback is the F.B.I. formula from my friends at Chapman & Co Leadership Institute; it is transformative. The F.B.I. formula is a way to be relevant and meaningful by being as clear and specific as possible to help people understand the impact of their behavior. It stands for: Feelings, Behavior, Impact.

  • F: This part of the message includes your feelings about the other person’s behavior. The more you can focus on how you feel (vs. how you perceive the other person feels), the more impactful the feedback is.
  • B: This is where you are specific about what the person actually did. The recipient of the feedback needs to know what he/she did that led to you feeling a certain way; the more specific you can be, the better.
  • I: Most of us have blind spots and may not be fully aware of the impact we have on others or the organization. By including this in the feedback, it helps connect the dots for people so they see the results of their behavior—the impact it has on you, others, customers, their team, or the broader organization.

Peyton may not have officially used the F.B.I. formula in his meltdown feedback to me, but it was there. He Felt dismissed, sad and lonely due to my Behavior of spending more time working than with him. And the Impact of my actions were hurting him and our relationship. His feedback was a gift to me to stop, reflect and begin the course-correcting process. I’ve seen countless people cower after receiving challenging feedback – feeling embarrassed or ashamed. And I’ve seen incredible people pick themselves up after they felt the sting of the feedback and leverage it as a conduit for their growth and to become better because of it.

We can’t avoid giving or receiving challenging feedback – or hideout when someone cares enough about us to let us know when we’re being a butthead. As Brené Brown says, “Daring leaders are never quiet about hard things.”

Lesson 4: We WILL mess up!

There is no such thing as perfection; we will mess up. So often we assume that messing up will hinder our ability for respect, love and belonging. Yet it’s how we deal with our mistakes that is what is critical. Last weekend I knew that the only way to help me through my feeling of overwhelm during this reset was to break one of my commitments and work on Sunday. I finally got a sense of relief for getting caught up on some things; at the same time, I felt incredible guilt for not honoring my commitment to Peyton.

As he was getting ready for bed, I apologized to him and explained how helpful taking the day to catch up was for me and my stress (and that it wouldn’t be a regular thing). He just smiled and said to me, “You know what I want for you, Mom? A REAL vacation…where you can just sit on the beach and relax and not work for a whole week.” I thanked him for his sweetness and reminded him we’re doing just that for spring break in April. Then I said, “I’ve been diligent about not working at night or on the weekends except for today, haven’t I?” He thought for a second and then agreed and gave me a big hug.

There was no meltdown; I didn’t go into a shame spiral or start over-apologizing or trying to “make-up” for it. I owned my actions, level-setted, and we were able to easily move forward. This wasn’t the only time I’ve messed up with him since our reset; and I’m wise enough to know this won’t be the last. When we build our “bank accounts” with people and own our imperfections, the natural response is empathy and connection. If a 9-year-old can understand and respond with empathy and connection, why do we think others won’t?

In our new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace, we define leadership as: “Leadership is maximizing our positive impact on the world by becoming our best, fully authentic selves and supporting those around us to break past barriers and step into their greatness.”

Becoming our best, fully authentic selves means we have to embrace our humanity – because there’s no such thing as perfection; we WILL mess up. That’s hard to do when we’re operating from a place of scarcity and self-protection. So we need to let go of any notion that we aren’t going to mess up and instead focus on how we rise and get back up when we fall.

Lesson 5: Self-Compassion is an essential practice

I went into an immediate shame spiral when Peyton had his pre-Thanksgiving outburst. What kind of narrative am I molding for him about how important he is in my life? What kind of crappy mom am I being? I’m failing at parenting and doing all the things I said I wouldn’t… The list went on and on.

Once I let myself feel the shame, I began to rise. You see, last fall we decided to print and hang the Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto on Peyton’s wall and on the main level in our house as a regular reminder of how we want to be as a family. Here are some of the highlights (I encourage you to download the entire Manifesto):

“I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.

We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.

We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other…

You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel…

I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly deeply seeing you.”

One day, about a month after “the meltdown”, Peyton and I were talking about having a growth mindset and about using things that are hard to learn and strengthen us. He hadn’t really paid much attention to the Manifesto before this and asked me to read it to him. As I did, he teared up. I asked him, “Is that pretty cool?” He simply said, “Yep.” I told him that I know that I have and will mess up and that the best gift I can give him is to give myself some grace, take accountability, and make amends. Then he gave me the biggest hug and said, “I love you.”

I have coached so many leaders that beat themselves up when they aren’t perfect. What they don’t realize is that it sets an unattainable tone for those around them and creates an intolerance for error. Yet when they take off their armor and admit their own imperfections, they find that others respect them MORE and that it fosters greater connection. How we show ourselves grace when we mess up and fall sets the tone for others around us.

Reflection Questions to Put These Lessons Into Practice

I hope these lessons are helpful to you as you navigate the complex waters of life and choose to show up as a leader. As you do, I encourage you to reflect on how to apply these lessons in your own life:

  • Where have things been off-course for you (personally or professionally) or any teams you lead or are part of? What can you do to own it and hit a reset button?
  • What self-limiting narrative are you holding onto that is keeping you “safe” but is also keeping you small?
  • Where is the best version of you showing up, and who gets the leftovers?
  • Who can you ask for authentic feedback? Who do you want to try giving authentic feedback to?
  • What mess-ups do you need to clean up? Where do you need to practice more self-compassion?

I’d love to hear what’s opening up for you as you put these into practice.

Never dull your sparkle!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top