#RethinkLeadership: Why Can’t Leaders Be Lead Parents?

wifes careerThree years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic story titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All sparked a national work-life debate. Slaughter, who had worked for the State Department under Hillary Clinton, shared her own personal struggles with making work and family work, leaving her top government job for a professorship at Princeton.227-anne-marie-slaughter

This week, we hear from the other side of the story, her husband, in a touching piece about fatherhood and an unusual confession by a working man about Why I Put My Wife’s Career First.

Her husband, Andrew Moravcsik, is successful in his own right. A professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, he also deeply cares about his career. But, as their two young sons grew, challenging issues most children faced created the need for one parent to take the lead role at home. He writes:

Most two-career families sooner or later find that one person falls into the role of lead parent. In our family, I assumed that role.

Moravcsik became that lead parent, embracing the role even further when Slaughter went on to become president of the New America Foundation in 2013.

To be sure, Anne-Marie was actively involved with our boys, taking responsibility for specific chunks of their lives, like dealing with teachers and planning college trips. She was — and is — emotionally close to both sons. And, as she described in her article three years ago, she broke off her government service to help our older son through his rocky transition into adolescence.

But none of this is lead parenting. Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis. These tasks aren’t intrinsically difficult, and my to-do list is far shorter than that of parents who cannot afford household help. Yet the role has unavoidably taken a toll on my professional productivity.

Indeed, in our outmoded workplace, placing more of a focus on caregiving often ends up hurting careers. But, clearly, the concept of lead parenting can be sad for a parent who wants to be more involved but whose job is too demanding especially when it comes to leadership positions as Slaughter now holds to take on a bigger family role.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t leaders be lead parents?

Moravcsik makes it clear in his article that women have seen their ambitions suffer because of this very dilemma. He stresses that men have to take more of a lead role at home, so that women can also follow their career dreams, but, we as a society have to also rethink what it means to be a leader.

Leader = Caregiver is not farfetched!

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

Question #5

What are the most important changes we could make about the requirements to reach top leadership positions in order to attract more talent?

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


In today’s economy, talent is the biggest competitive differentiator, and companies cannot afford to lose future leaders to archaic organizational charts and stale policies. Companies can make important changes to the requirements for leadership positions to attract top talent.

One requirement that companies could drop altogether to boost their talent pipeline is the application itself. A recent McKinsey & Company study reported that internal research at a major technology company found that women only applied to open positions if they felt they met 100% of the criteria, compared to only 60% for men. This is particularly troubling given a Harvard Business Review survey which found that “women are rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership.” Companies must play an active role in ensuring that the most talented young workers (especially women, given the statistics above) are being encouraged to apply for open leadership positions and advocate for their career advancement.

Another step companies can take is evolving the workplace culture, particularly the demands around in-person “face time.” While most organizations still operate under the modularized, 9 to 5 workday model, today’s employees are demanding a different set of rules. Creating a more flexible workplace enables employees to better manage the balance between personal and professional aspirations.

Today’s young leaders are more diverse and dynamic than ever before. To attract them, it’s imperative that organizations evolve their requirements to reach the top ranks.

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


There are so many changes that could take place. We could change requirements for leadership so that up-and-coming leaders don’t have to relocate constantly and travel frequently in order to ascend the corporate ladder. We could require rising talent to “reverse mentor” an executive giving those in leadership a heads up on up-and-coming female leaders they may not ordinarily interact with. We could change requirements about work schedules to make them more flexible, so that employees can stay home with their children, spouse or parent.

These things should happen. These things need to happen. But, this is only part of the equation.

We need to be a little creative in reimagining both leadership and family in the 21st century. Until people start truly imagining leadership differently than they currently do, we will continue to have the false choice between work and home, leaders who cannot be vulnerable and people who think they need to work an 80-hour workweek to effect change.

Until people start truly reimagining family, women will bear the primary responsibility of childbearing regardless of whether they want to do so, and both mothers and fathers will be left yearning for more dynamic and equitable parental leave.

If we stop replicating the current restrictive definitions of leadership and family, I think it’s possible not only to attract more talent to leadership positions, but also to create a healthier and thriving work culture for everyone.

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