Leaders and Men, Watch Your Buts

Recently, my wife and better half told me that it makes her sad when she can’t figure out how to make me happy (stomach drop). I was in one of my moods of determined sadness — sometimes I’m a sinker — and we were at the kitchen table trying to uncover the source. After some back and forth, we reasoned that I was stressed about doing my job well and feeling guilty about being an absent father. I did not realize that I was also on the precipice of an essential leadership lesson, with the potential of opening hundreds of half-closed doors.

Why do I feel more pressure to check my email than to spend time with my daughter before she goes to bed? How does my professional evaluation weigh more than my performance as a parent? Being a father is the most important job I will ever have. I know this. Still, routinely, I forget Goethe’s wisdom:

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

What matters most? For me, it’s not a hard question:

· Family

· Relationships

· Health

· Kindness

· Character

What matters least is harder to discern. Examples:

· The speed at which I reply to emails. Timely doesn’t need to mean instantaneous but it can’t be too long and the longer I wait the more they pile up and if I want to do a good job I need to be responsive that way I can perform and provide for my family which is most important after all.

· Relaxing with a cold drink or two. But let’s remember that family and relationships are my top priorities and it’s a bonding/stress relieving thing and what’s good for the soul is good for my health even if all scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

· Television. Sure, but I’ve been working like a dog and I just need some time to turn my brain off and I love watching soccer and football and for me to be a good dad and husband everyone keeps telling me I need to “put my mask on first” before helping people put on theirs.

· My social media presence. I know my whole mission with GoodMenders is to foster moral masculinity, develop principled leaders, and build better culture while supporting educational equity — but to do that I need to get more followers and more likes, even if it’s contradictory to my messaging and against my core beliefs because anyone and everyone says you need to be on top of your social media game.

Do you see the culprit of the hamstringing? That one word? It’s the voice inside our head that constantly says, “Ooh, that road might be heading where you want to go — but it’s going to be long and hard and you might never see the end of it — so why don’t you just pull over to the side here and put your feet up for a minute?”

BUT. It’s a lethal little devil, killing everything that comes before it. Like Roundup! And it’s sneaky. It took writing this for me to see how many buts I have allowed to pull on my anxiety strings. I want to be an exceptional father, but I am also loyal to my school community and need to make enough cash money so that my daughter can have an exceptional life. I know that screen time makes me less happy, but I’m no Captain Fantastic. It’s 2021. Give me a break. When I told my wife that writing this might sound dramatic, she said that at least it might be helpful for me.

Of course, there are some good buts, as in good to know. That company sells some sweet sneakers…but for every pair sold they cut down a tree to achieve their mission of “a world without wood.” Or You could take down 15 hot dogs, but your body will punish you. Buts can be critical reality checks, so it’s important that we wear our critical thinking caps and recognize the distinction when another but jumps into the middle of the action. They are forks in the road, and if we study our maps and tune our navigational equipment — driverless vehicles are still suspect, thank God — then we will at least end up in the right county by journey’s end, if not our dream house looking at the sunset.

Implications for Leadership (and for men)

Great leaders have great judgement. They can tell the difference between destination and distraction. In my obsession to perform and achieve, I was distracted from my purpose — to be a good person, husband, and father. As a result, I was digging down a rabbit hole, and I was exhausted. The rabbit hole becomes an excuse to reserve our best selves for work, particularly for men.

I was granting myself permission to be a little less when I wasn’t under contract. Though, I suspect I’m not the only one who struggles to prioritize what really matters. Despite increasing access to paternity leave, the proportion of men who take time off is small. More men are seeing the light of gender equality, yet women still do the majority of household labor and childcare while making more career sacrifices.

Maybe contracts are a starting place. What if leaders collaborated with their people to make culture contracts, committing to a shared expectation of values and actions? What if households devised constitutions, securing the blessings of liberty for all family members? I’ve always loved the concept of accountability over punishment. It’s a sturdier motivator. Bad contracts don’t hold people accountable for what matters most, and the pay isn’t worth the cost of doing business.

This post was previously published on medium.com.

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