IDEO Blog | 日本語はこちら

5 lessons my toddler is teaching me about leadership

There’s a lot that I’m learning from guiding my son that’s helping shape my perspective on guiding designers, clients and projects at IDEO. Like IDEO’ers (Especially), he is so curious about everything he encounters and certainly isn’t afraid to fail when making his wood block worlds. Making sure he has all of the right stimulus to grow into a kind, creative and loving boy is a big responsibility and doing so has shown me how I can transfer some of those learnings into how I show up as a project leader at IDEO. Here are 5 stories from my son’s adventures that are teaching me ways to think about how to grow both as a project leader in IDEO, and as a father.

Patience pays off

Sitting in a cafe one day, my wife and I were enjoying a coffee whilst our son, 2 at the time was in his buggy playing with his toes and taking his socks off as he would usually do. After a while of toe play and tickling to keep him entertained, he started tapping his toes with a sock until one miraculously went in. I saw and instinctively jumped in to help him finish, but this time he didn’t want it. He had remembered all the times we had put them on and as he pulled as hard as he could his foot went in! The look of joy on his face and the surprise from Mummy and Daddy made him so happy he tried again... But he ended up having two socks on one foot.

This moment of success and joy in my son's eyes made me realize that it is important to give opportunities, and the space for people to try and succeed at tasks on their own. You may see someone start to try and put two socks on one foot every now and then, and that is fine. Butting in, or stopping the process of others because their way of accomplishing something differs from how you would do it removes any hope you have at empowering someone’s chances of succeeding and your growth as a leader. In the same way we at IDEO relish learning from failure, If things don’t work out at first you can always take the socks off and try again.

Align your energies

Our son suddenly changed his wake up routine from a 6:30am cute singing alarm, to a 4:00am wake up call. That shift was a difficult adjustment and meant we didn’t always wake up on the right side of the bed, often perpetuating negativity and tantrums before the sun even rose. After a few grumpy days of this, I decided we could try going out for a morning stroll to the local duck lake soon after waking up, and that suddenly gave both of us a fresh chance to look at the environment around us instead of focusing entirely on one another. Finding that new routine turned stress into anticipation for all of us.

Working in close knit teams, you start to see how others show and use their energy in different areas of the design process. Leading projects gives you chances to see what gets people excited in the project, as well as create opportunities to motivate team members to want to push their work further. Sometimes, energies don’t always align, people can collide and not talking through it can start to really loom over everybody in the room. Taking people aside and trying to get to the roots of what’s happening can be tough, but recognizing how others show up and what they hope of others not only brings people together, it can start to create relationships of trust that far extend projects.

Keeping checks on yourself and even inviting your teams to look out for you too is equally important as a leader, as your presence can permeate stronger in smaller groups. Some days, a 4:00am wake up call isn’t what we really want, but taking a moment to see if it will be more costly to get agitated or put on a smile will have a substantial impact on your day to day.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Learning to ride a balance bike for the first time can be a scary task. Strapping on a helmet and sitting on an unbalanced vehicle, you hope to make it move when all it wants to do is fall over. At first, you walk slowly pushing the bike a long hoping that things don’t go wrong and slowly but surely build confidence to move faster. After a few tries, you sit down and start pushing with your legs and building up more and more speed until you find your Dad chasing you trying to keep up.

Starting a journey into leadership is one with many stumbles that I wish sometimes there was protective headgear for. It’s one of those things that whilst someone can be there for you to teach you the basics and guide you along the way, the only real way you can gain experience and see how to best do things is to do them yourself. The more and more you might put yourself into seemingly uncomfortable situations, the more empathic you become to those who’d shown you way, You also develop a means to get more exploratory in your approach to do things in a way that feels authentic to you.

Not everyone can ride a balance bike with perfect balance from the get go, and that’s ok. You might scrape your knees a few times at the beginning, as you try to make sure that everything that needs to happen in a day gets done with everyone feeling accomplished, but keep jumping back onto the saddle and eventually you’ll build up the confidence to ride your own way.

Keep your eyes open

At a previous new years celebration with my in-laws, my wife’s father was ceremoniously setting candles and giving prayers to lost family members performing a number of hand claps, pauses and bow’s to numerous immaculately kept framed photographs. Little did he realise, a curious boy was watching his every move, and after the prayer was performed just 2 times, my son had all the movements down and was repeating his every move whilst my father was none the wiser.

In their curiosity, children are looking at you even when you don’t realize, they take in new information and behaviours like sponges, before you know it they are reminding you of things you maybe do and say a bit too much in front of them.

At the time, my son couldn’t have understood the depth of the actions he was mimicking; but catching this special moment of his cognitive growth of understanding patterns and play reminded me of my own situation, working and living in a foreign land with an incomplete understanding of the culture and language. My ability to observe has been crucial to my active involvement in design research during projects at IDEO. But I’ve often wondered how much of what I observe out in the field has influenced me beyond having a better understanding of how to tackle problems and generate ideas that solve people's innate needs. My son has been a good reminder to look deeper beyond the surface and be able to see things from a different perspective.

There’s always another way

For Christmas, we gave our son a magnet connecting block toy and his eyes lit up brighter than the tree when he realised the pieces stick together and he can make anything from cars to rockets. Sometimes though, he’ll make something adventurous or play with the toy vigorously in a way it just can’t withstand and will inevitably fall to pieces. Tantrums often ensue, to which we need to calm him down and try to rebuild his efforts. What often happens is that we build it again to cheer him up, but it’s a bit different. At first we feel that might enrage his tantrum further but we are always surprised to see him pick it up, and build something even more adventurous on top of what we remade.

The things we plan to make don't always fall into place as we’d expect, and trying to force outcomes on tasks you give to teams may only lead to tantrums. Setting such expectations on your teammates could lead to feelings of disappointment or a lack of accomplishment in their own abilities to creatively solve problems. Not to say that expectations aren’t important, what is important is having the willingness to embrace how those around you can build off of your ideas in unexpected and exciting ways. These points of execution can serve as great opportunities to set stages for people of different specialisms or backgrounds to collaborate, learn from each other and experience new perspectives.

others successful. There is no one path in accomplishing this, and I hope that I will not stop growing here. I need to always be curious and venture into the unknowns to see what happens, and luckily my son's growth is a reminder of that.