As a new mom, there were plenty of new lessons to take in Caroline’s first year. Particularly, as a new mom of a daughter with Down Syndrome. However, I found that there were many more ups in contrast to the downs (no pun intended) of what I thought might come from having a child with special needs. Silly me, silly my anxiety. In this process, I can’t help but think about how what I learned as a new mom could also be likened to what I have learned as a leader.
- Let them cry it out.
Or in other words, it’s okay to sometimes let your team fail. It’s harder than hell to listen to your child cry while you try to drown them out with Netflix and a bottle of wine. And it’s just as hard to let your staff and your team learn some lessons the “hard” way while you sit on your hands and try not to micromanage. But guaranteed, at the end of the day, you will have a child that will sleep through the night and a staff that can successfully see an initiative through, armed with new found knowledge and confidence, whether they succeeded or dropped the ball a little. In the end, both will be okay and all the better for it.
- Do not set limitations.
One of the most important things that I have learned from Caroline is that I need to let her do her thing and show me what she’s got. I set high goals, but I’m also there to catch her when she falls from pulling to stand and reaching high up for toys. As soon as she has mastered something, she is onto something else. Through her determination, she calls BS on anything that anyone has written on Down Syndrome and children with development disabilities. Let your child develop into their own greatness. The same should go with your team. The best piece of advice I received on supervision was from a past boss and dear friend of mine; “give them a project and then get the hell out of their way”. If you instill trust in your team, they will respect you all the more for it. Do not limit their greatness; be there to support, but also let them do their thing. I guarantee that you both will be pleasantly surprised by their capabilities that come from this.
- When they are hungry, feed them.
And anything you have in your fridge will probably do. Just chop it up into small, manageable bites and make sure it’s soft enough for those kiddos with no teeth. This will help them grow and give them energy. This shouldn’t be rocket science. And when your staff is hungry – whether for new projects or just because they have worked a full day – order in pizza or look at your full plate of projects and see what you can delegate off onto your staff that are thirsty for more challenge and responsibilities. You will need to access — just as you do with children — staff that need smaller, more manageable projects and those that are ready to cut their teeth on something bigger.
- Provide encouragement.
Every time Caroline does something new, we make a big deal by shouting and clapping, saying “Yaayyyy, Caroline!” And she looks at us like we just grew three heads. And then she, too, starts clapping and shouting. It’s not necessary to yell and clap and throw a parade every time your staff does something terrific, but it’s also good practice to show some acknowledgement and appreciation more often than not. To praise them in front of others and to take notice of a project that they worked hard on and give credit where credit is due. Praise works the same as food – it does wonders for energy and motivation.
- Widen your social circle; find some mentors and folks who “get” it.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge the parents out there – both those that have children with special needs and those who don’t – that have provided support, encouragement and advice within this first year. It’s been refreshing to exchange stories and advice with those parents that get it, that understand your frustrations and also revel with you in your celebrations, understanding just how important both are to your growth as a parent. Do the same with folks in your field; find a mentor, find a colleague that “gets” your work. Reflection and story exchanging is not just important to do but it helps you grow and expand as a leader and provides an excellent opportunity to think outside the box. This will only help strengthen your ability as a leader.
- When in doubt, get on the floor and play a little.
There are a zillion things that go through our mind every day and lists upon lists that we are mentally crossing off as we move from one project to the next. We often don’t take time to really, truly enjoy the day by playing a little. Caroline has taught me to slow down and take time to lay back and look at the trees, take notice of the beauty of life, to take advantage of stacking up plastic blocks and pointing out colors. I recall one day in late May, that Caroline and I had laid back on a blanket in the back yard and just laughed at the tree boughs waving in the wind, noticing the clouds rolling by. It was the best 15 minutes I had spent all week. Take some time to do the same with your team; to get lost in the moment a little and have some fun with the work that you all are accomplishing together. To take a moment to enjoy what you are doing and why you are doing it. You would be surprised by what creativity comes to you when you have a moment to take in the day.
- Be an advocate.
I have learned that pushing a little for more services for Caroline and also pushing for higher goals has helped set her up for success and reaching those milestones. I know to ask questions, to get the most information I can from her doctors and therapists and to talk with my husband about what would be best for her, with the understanding that she may struggle with more things than not in the future. I know that she will need us to advocate for her, for her education and for living her best life. I also do not doubt that she, too, will find her own voice in advocating for herself. And when the time comes, I will let her do that. You will know when the best time is to advocate for your team members and your staff and push for what’s best for them, whether that’s a promotion, a raise, a better office space, or providing accommodations to best meet their needs. They will tell you – and you will also know – when it’s time for them to use their own voice. But in harmony with yours as their leader, it will sound all the more sweeter for providing them with what they need.
- Move past your comfort zone and work to understand those that are different from you.
You may surprise yourself; those whom you assume are different than you, are in actuality, probably more like you than different. (if the whole world thought this way, we would be in a much better place). I cannot tell you how many times a day I am reminded that Caroline is more like a “typical” baby than not. She cries when she is hungry, she poops more than what is probably acceptable in a landfill, she loves to shout when she is excited and shove things that are foreign into her mouth, and really just loves this thing called life. So, I challenge you to take a closer look at that person you avoid at staff or team meetings because you are going on the assumption that you won’t get along with them or that you don’t have anything in common with them or that you feel intimidated by physical differences you see – and try striking up a conversation instead. You might just surprise yourself that this person may have more in common with you than originally thought. That they may not be as annoying as you feared or that their hometown is right next to yours or you take the same train to work. And those commonalities could help improve your work and your team tenfold.
- It’s okay to be frustrated and tired. Be gentle on yourself.
Whether you are parenting a child or leading a team, it can be exhausting to manage, provide guidance and oversight and keep all the balls going in the air. Inevitably, one or two or maybe all of those balls may drop and that can send you spiraling into a dark place of frustration, loss of confidence, lack of motivation, and perhaps depression. But continue to remind yourself that you are human, it is not a matter if you make a mistake but when, and you will make many. What I try to remind myself is that these mistakes pave a way to a better you, a parent, a leader, a team member, a family contributor. Be gentle to you – take some time for yourself and know that this too, shall pass.
- You are your own worst critic.
When I visited a therapist over the summer to deal with my anxiety, she asked what specifically brought me to her, why now, when I had been experiencing anxiety all of life? I told her, “I’m here for my daughter. I don’t want her to see me struggle with anxiety and even worse, I don’t want her to struggle with it. I don’t want anxiety to rule our lives.” She understood, and we moved on to discussing tools that I could use to help me counteract this struggle. These tools pointed out ways in which cognitive “distortions” were ruling my life, such as “If your performance falls short, you see yourself as a total failure” or “you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it so exclusively that your vision of all reality becomes darkened”. I found myself deeply resonating with these examples. Being responsible for Caroline shone a bright spotlight on these distortions of which my “inner critic” had been falsely telling me for years. I had been relying on this critic to rule the constant inner voices in my head that fed into my anxiety, instead of focusing on the bigger picture of all that I had accomplished along my journey. As both a leader and a mother, I had fallen victim to this. No more; I realized that by surrounding myself with warmer, more positive and encouraging voices, including my own, only made me stronger. And that in reality, I had much to celebrate in my accomplishments within both of these roles. So, work to squash your inner critic and find one that is more compassionate and forgiving. And once you do that, you will find more space in your head to focus on what’s important; you will be astounded by what you are capable of when the negativity is drowned out.