#RethinkLeadership: Defining a Leader as Caregiver

We are a nation of working caregivers, except at the top of the corporate world. That’s why business leaders are more likely to see caregiving as something that is fundamentally incompatible with the way they work.

Anne 265 BW 1 (3)This from a New York Times oped written by Anne Weisberg, Families and Work Institute’s senior vice president, written Monday and retweeted more than 1,500 times so far.

The piece struck a nerve because it questioned the way we define leadership and what defines a leader, pointing out how recent corporate “perks” such as flying nannies on business for high-level female executives are a good thing, but won’t fix the major problems with thashtag-rethink-leadership-logo-v1 (1)oday’s workplace, in particular, how we view leadership.

The Norman Rockwell model of family life continues to be the prerequisite for success in corporate America, it seems. It provides the right incentive (complete reliance on one income) and the right support (ability to focus entirely on work). It perpetuates the prototype of the ideal worker as someone who can — and does — regularly put work above everything else, including caring for oneself and one’s family.

How to we move beyond this prototype?

As part of Families and Work Institute’s ongoing #RethinkLeadership initiative, we asked our panel of experts the third in a series of five questions meant to get us all rethinking what leadership looks like.

Question #3

What is the ideal behavior of a leader who prioritizes both their work and their family/personal responsibilities?

1cd94e0Kunal Modi, management consultant who worked for Teach for America and the White House National Economic Council, and a contributing author to “Lean In for Graduates” 


A leader who prioritizes both their work and their family is proactive, transparent and has a growth-oriented mindset.

Leaders tend to ruthlessly schedule their professional lives and attend to personal obligations only with time permitting. However, these two spheres are more intertwined than ever before, and our equity in our domestic lives has important repercussions for our professional performance.

According to a recent report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, in dual-income households, women are much more likely to perform household chores on the average workday than men. This “second shift” of domestic duties disproportionately impacts women’s ability to dedicate time to other personal or professional endeavors. Both male and female leaders can try to create more equitable domestic arrangements for themselves and their spouses by proactively scheduling personal commitments ahead of time, including who takes responsibility for morning school rides or daily meal preparation. Making conscious arrangements ahead of time can help ever-busy leaders budget the time and mental energy required to fulfill personal responsibilities.

As leaders find alignment in their own personal and professional lives, transparently sharing what works for them publicly, both commits them to sustaining those practices and serves as a model for employees to emulate.

Leaders who are transparent about their personal commitments, including school pick-ups and meal preparation, create a positively reinforcing culture for employees. Competitive workplaces create inherent tensions between professional and personal obligations. The key is to a create a culture where balance is the norm, not the exception.

Lastly, leaders should understand that achieving professional and personal alignment is an ever-evolving journey, filled with false starts and earnest self-reflection. Creating safe environments at work for honest reflection and peer support networks can both benefit leaders and organizations as a whole in creating a more holistic and healthy workplace.

EReidErinrin Reid, a Peter Paul Career Development professor, and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business

Leaders act as models for what it takes to be successful within a particular organization. Whether they are aware of it or not, leaders’ own choices about work and personal life thus set the standard for an appropriate balance in their organizations. If a leader never takes a vacation, it can be difficult for those trying to climb the ranks to justify taking one.

Thus, leaders should not only prioritize their work and their personal lives in a way that is appropriate for their own lives, but also be aware that how they do so influences — implicitly or explicitly — how this is done by others within the organization.

Simple practices like avoiding scheduling meetings after 5 pm, avoiding emailing employees in the evenings, avoiding giving last-minute assignments and taking vacation time can help leaders both make space for their own work and personal lives while also signaling to employees that prioritizing both work and personal life is possible and valued in this organization. Of course, occasional project crises and client demands may require some exceptions to these practices.

However, if the general organizational practice is to contain work and have it follow a regular, predictable schedule, both leaders and employees can find ways to prioritize their work and personal lives.

126e751Meredith Sadin, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of California, Berkeley/UCSF


There is great power in acknowledging the difficulty – sometimes impossibility – of prioritizing both work and personal/family life in today’s economy. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in The Atlantic “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can, too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

When leaders can bring this candor to the table, magic happens. However, when leaders “make it look easy,” many women feel pathologized: “All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange,” Slaughter writes. “I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family … Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

The fact is, female leaders usually bear the brunt of prioritizing both work and home life – research shows that working women still do more housework than their male counterparts. However, there is great power when leaders acknowledge that the system is broken and creating a needlessly false choice between work and home. Leaders that openly choose both and openly acknowledge the difficulty in doing so in today’s current conditions do a great service to their employees – and to creating the impetus for change.



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