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Leadership Help From SuperNanny!

By LeaderTalk Contributor — February 06, 2009 4 min read

I have to admit that I watch the reality show called “Supernanny”. If you arent’t familiar with the show the concept is pretty simple: the Supernanny (a family coach)) is invited into a family by parents that are being driven nuts by their children. I began watching the program as a guilty pleasure; but soon I realized that it was an excellent tutorial on good leadership consulting

“Say again?”

Let me give a simple example. Three pre-adolescents kids are running wild, throwing toys and fighting with each other. Mom is doing her best to maintain order; but the kids are doing as they please. When she tries to discipline them two run away,; and the one who stays behind hauls off and smacks her. Her husband works long hours so she is trapped with these uncontrollable kids all day. To make matters worse, they won’t go to bed. Mom is at her wits end and driven to tears.

It may not be obvious, but many of us in positions of leadership are dealing with very similar issues, although age and professionalism generally damp down the direct defiance and outrageous displays of misbehavior (think slapping).

Over the last decade I have worked with many educational leaders who are trying to manage dysfunctional teams where members are sabotaging each other, or the leader, or the direction of the organization. They generally do this covertly, but the effect is not much different than the effect the disrespectful and misbehaving children have on their mother…the leaders get frustrated, angry, and a feel like they are ineffective.

I’ve had this feeling of helplessness myself and have to admit that when I called in a consultant to help I was really saying,

“Please, SuperNanny, fix this team! They aren’t acting the way I’d like them to act. They aren’t listening. They aren’t cooperative. They aren’t reasonable. No matter what I try to do, nothing works! FIX THEM!”

So, in comes SuperNanny!

Interestingly, she rarely begins working with the kids. The kids will come later. She almost always begins by working with the parents, the leaders. Her first order of business is to help the parents understand that they are accountable for how their children are acting. If the parents don’t like the situation, then they need to change their own behaviors, which will in turn shift the behaviors of the kids.

I have to admit, this is the last thing that I want to hear from a consultant.

“Look at how well I treat them. Now look at how bad they treat me. It is not my fault. It’s them. I can prove it. You need to fix them, not me!”

Another common reaction is, “How dare you say I’m accountable! You don’t know me, or this situation, that well. You’re a consultant that has only been here a short time. There is no way that you see the whole picture!” That one’s a classic...hire a consultant and then ignore their advice.

The clip below shows two parents that accept their accountability and are open to change their behavior. Supernanny, the consultant, helps cut through their rationalizations and stories about why things are the way they are, and acts as a mirror so that the young parent leaders can see themselves and their situation more clearly. Watch the young mother come to tears when she fully internalizes what has been happening.

It is a universal truth of leadership development that until the parent/leader is ready to embrace their own accountability, SuperNanny isn’t going to get very far and there will be little significant change.

One of the best expositions of the concept of leadership accountability took place on a show where the misbehaving child was an adolescent who engaged in fierce outbursts with her father. Dad would say something and the daughter would respond angrily which got Dad even angrier. His next response would throw more fuel on the fire and soon the whole conversation would spiral out of control.

To help him see the negative pattern they were in the Nanny takes some toy bricks, one color representing Dad and one color representing his daughter. On each brick she tapes a brief snippet of their words; Dad’s on this brick and his daughter’s on the next brick. She continues to line the bricks up, while continuing to alternate colors to represent the back and forth that takes place when they fight. She asks Dad to push the first brick over. He does, and one by one each brick falls and knocks over the next successive brick until they are all down.

“That’s how your conversations spiral out of control” she explains to Dad.

“Now to change this pattern we change how YOU behave. We can’t force your daughter to change. I want you to take the brick with your own reaction on it out of the chain of bricks. He does. Now, push the first brick.” He pushes the first brick with his daughter’s words on it and because he has removed his own ‘reaction brick’ from the sequence, his daughter’s brick falls harmlessly. All the other bricks remain standing.

“Yes, I get it now! Changing my own reaction and my own behavior changes everything!”

Ah! The first step in resolving the situation has been taken.The parent leader fully comprehends their own accountability…

Now, the Supernanny is ready to go work on Step 2 - improving the dysfunctional situation with the children.

Pete Reilly

Cross Posted at Ed Tech Journeys

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