A matter of perfection
By Bob Murray
Firm leaders can learn from good parenting styles in their quest for perfection, says Dr Bob Murray
Is there such as thing as the ‘perfect’ law firm leader or the ‘perfect’ parent?
One of the things science has shown us is that we humans need other humans to give us time and attention. That’s what makes us feel supported and valued; and has to be part of perfection in terms of both parenting and managing.
However, we frequently settle for less than perfection in both areas. In many ways, that’s just as well since the search for total perfection often robs us of the flexibility that allows us to cope with the very imperfect social environment in which we live.
And besides, in most areas of life each one of us has a different idea of what perfection means. It’s often tied to the cultural norms or the economic system of the country we reside in, were born in, or where our immediate ancestors came from – or the needs of the immediate situation we happen to be in.
The perfect lawyer, the perfect doctor, the perfect psychotherapist: perfection is often relative. Is the perfect doctor one who cures you of your symptoms or one that heals your spirit? An ancient hunter-gatherer and a modern Londoner might have different takes on that. Maybe it’s a mixture of both curing and healing that we need, though the latter might take time that nobody seems to have.
Interestingly, recent research has shown the cure rate achieved by shamans is about the same as modern medicine. Giving time and attention to someone is a great healer as it can stimulate the body’s natural immune system to fight disease (which, in reality, is all that most drugs do).
Due to the operation of the same neurogenetic processes, giving time and attention can also make people more motivated and engaged with you and your goals, whether you’re a doctor, a parent or a leader.
Likewise, is the perfect lawyer one who can expertly advise an individual on their legal issues; or one who will listen with patience and wisdom to a wide range of problems which might not be ‘legal’ in the strict sense of the word? Maybe at times someone needs a quick legal fix and at other times they need the patience and the wisdom. So as your needs change, so does perfection.
While each of us will answer those questions about perfection in doctors or lawyers with our own individual nuances, one overwhelming fact remains: the spirit, the patience and wisdom are scarce commodities in the world we have created. We’re not hunter-gatherers with all the time in the world. Our modern attention span (about equal to that of a goldfish) is no match for that of a member of the ancients’ council of elders or a shamanic healer.
Recent research in what I call ‘human science’ (a bundle of disciplines that includes psychology, social science, medicine, anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, human biology and biological psychiatry) has shown us the essentials of our biological and behavioural ‘design specs’. We know now what makes the human system work in the most physically efficient and mentally fulfilling way.
Using this research, we can define the characteristics that make a good political or corporate leader or managing partner of a firm – or parent.
Essentially adopting the style of leadership or parenting most aligned with our design specs is the closest we can get to being perfect. In terms of leadership, that style is known as transformational leadership (TL).
Its fundamentals are:
- Individualised consideration – The degree to which the leader listens and attends to each follower’s concerns and needs; and acts as their mentor or coach.
- Intellectual stimulation – The degree to which the leader challenges assumptions, takes risks and solicits followers’ ideas.
- Inspirational motivation – The degree to which the leader articulates a vision that is appealing and inspiring to followers.
- Idealised influence – Provides a role model for high ethical behaviour, instils pride and gains respect and trust.
- Joint decision-making – The ability and courage to take followers into the decision-making process.
- Establishing boundaries and needs – A good leader must make clear what their boundaries are and state their needs clearly, as well as taking into account the needs of their followers.
- Providing safety – A leader cannot always provide physical safety or even job security, but they can create an environment of relational safety in which people like and respect each other. That, to a human, is more important.
In a real sense, this form of leadership works because it’s much like what the council of elders once did in guiding a hunter-gatherer band – it’s wired into our DNA. For this reason, research suggests that TL is 62 per cent more effective than any other form of leadership.
Of course, not every situation a leader faces lends itself to transformational leadership. In periods of crisis, when time is of the essence there is a place for a transactional, or ‘do as I say’ style.
If you look over the characteristics of a TL leader you will notice that a good parenting style is not that different. Research has shown that those characteristics lead to the same effective outcomes no matter the culture, the ancestry or the social environment.
A good parent, science says, is in many ways like a good leader and most of the characteristics that make for excellence are the same for both. A parent is a mentor and coach; a role model who will imprint their values and behaviours forever in their offspring.
A good parent is a questioner, facilitating cognitive growth by helping a child come to their own understanding and solutions to their own problems. As with leadership, there is a time for telling, for giving advice; and there is a time for listening with patience and asking questions which challenge and stimulate.
A parent should have a realistically optimistic vision for the future, not just of the family but for the wider world.
Like good leaders, parents must be clear about the needs of their child and firm in their boundaries. A child learns about having boundaries – about having a sense of autonomy and control over their lives – from the actions of their parents. Many parents are afraid to lay down boundaries and express their needs. That’s a great pity because it robs their children of a sense of safety.
That sense of safety is vital to both employees and children. A child, like an employee, must have the sense that they’re valued, that their parent (or manager) has their back and will be there for them. They must feel they belong (belongingness is the second most important thing to a child).
The most important thing is the sense that the child’s parents love and respect each other. A child’s sense of attachment and, therefore, their ability to lead a life free of major mood and other psychiatric disorders is built on this. Just as a good leader demonstrates that they value, acknowledge and respect their employees and their colleagues, so parents must do the same with each other.
Parents must hug each other as much as they do their children, must praise each other as often, hold hands as often. Neither a leader nor a parent can be perfect, but science at least shows us how to try.