Raising Kids, Picasso and SuperLeadership

Friends,

Back in the late-80s when there were only around 50 or so books on leadership, a book by Sims and Manz called SuperLeadership grabbed me! By “super” they meant “really great,” but they also meant super, from the Latin meaning “above,” i.e., leaders above leaders. Their whole idea, which has become way more popular since then, was simple: great leaders make followers into leaders themselves.

I was reminded of this idea when my friend Janet Lawson told me how she really dislikes the idea of “raising kids.” She says, “we don’t raise chicks, puppies or goslings; we raise chickens, dogs and geese.” And she wondered aloud: What would be different if we thought we were raising adults, not kids? It sure made me wonder: if someone watched my actions, heard my speech, traced my steps in the kitchen and family room and car, would they think my intent was to raise kids or adults? And what if we took it even a step further and asked, “What if we thought we were raising leaders?!”

Scott Blakeney, an RFL reader, loaned me A Touch of Greatness, a marvelous documentary. In it an extraordinary teacher named Albert Cullum offers this Picasso work as an image of how he tried to teach:

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Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1921 © 2007 The Art Institute of Chicago. 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 60603-6404.

Mr. Cullum explained: “Teaching is pushing them away form you – through doors, different doors; not embracing them. When you embrace someone you’re holding them back. Picasso really captured that in his artwork Mother and Child: the chunky mother balancing the baby perfectly; she doesn’t hold him; he’s balanced; he can go, any time he’s capable of going. But he’s perfectly balanced. Classroom teaching should be that. Find a secure spot for them and then they’re ready to go.”

Raising adults. Raising leaders. You push them through doors, when you

Lead with your best self,

Dan

13 Comments

  1. Cyndi Geiger

    What a beautiful way to describe leadership (parenting, teaching etc.)We tend to forget that holding them may comfort them temporairly, yet limits them. Teaching them to fly and to be leaders themselves sets them free and benefits everyone.
    Thanks for the insight !

  2. Tom Szczepanski

    Another appropriate translation is for the word parent – it is from the Latin word “to prepare”. As you correctly state – we should be preparing our children and raising adults. Too frequently, I observe parents complaining that their student didn’t excel because the teacher expected too much; their athlete didn’t win the game because the referee made a bad call; or the contest wasn’t won because the judge was biased. This continuous series of soft landings doesn’t prepare anyone. Proper preparation occurs by encouraging success and allowing failure, setting high standards and permitting the kids to win their own battles. It’s a tough standard that I challenge myself to live up to.

  3. Norma Bauer

    Picasso’s mother makes the child feel secure… This thought generated a number of philosophical questions:
    –What if all of us helped others feel secure?
    –How would we behave if we felt secure, free of fear, confident of acceptance, set free to grow along our own path, not one set for us by society or others?

    Unconditional love is hard for many to imagine, having never experienced it, though it’s totally empowering.

    What if all of us offered each other unconditional ACCEPTANCE? Not accepting lousy behavior, just accepting the essence of each person?

    What a heavenly haven it would be if we could all count on others to accept us!

    Is this what it felt like in former days, when hunters and gatherers lived in tightly-knit communities, knowing that each member was valuable and valued, no matter what? (For example, even if they had seizure disorder, because then the group agreed that they were spiritual leaders because the spirits were teaching them wisdom…)

    Do leaders offer unconditional acceptance to others, as healthy parents offer it to infants?

    Do babies grow into toddlers and schoolchildren and teens and adults partly because, maybe partly to the extent that, they bask in unconditional acceptance?

    How limiting is it for a child who cowers, fearing rejection or violence?

    How limiting is it for anyone who constantly fears rejection?

    What can any of us do to act as if we can count on unconditional acceptance?

    Would we then lead with our best self?

    I’m inclined to think so…

    • GAPetrie

      I’m refreshed by your mention of hunter-gatherer (or as some paleopathologists are pushing for it to be called, gatherer-hunter) pre-civilization. The idea of total acceptance you present is interesting; what would we become if we were allowed a completely natural growth and formation, without pruning, training, or artificial fertilizers?

      Alas, the world is succumbed to order and there are very few instances in life when we can even exercise one moment of such freedom. And to those who live entirely within order, the though of going without that extreme lends them to fear the other, succumbing to chaos.

      Life is entirely without balance these civilized days, as expressed in one of my favorite films, “Koyaanisqatsi” (hopi for “life out of balance”). So whenever we make a mental effort to determine what is proper in raising (training, leading) somebody, the more conscientious of us are typically stopped in our tracks: is this absolutely the right way to lead? The longer you think about it, the higher the evidence piles up for both pro and con. And we’d love to outweigh the pros, but when we care intensely about the progress somebody is going to make under our leadership, each of the cons has its own unique sting — we wouldn’t want to go through that, wouldn’t even want to have to go through that even if we find that we usually do.

      Our discontent always shows our failings as leaders. And expressing honest discontent with practically the entirety of this… overvalued, oversold, overmarketed, modern civilization shows our failings as a society. We could point to people who yearn for a better way of life and call them kooks, hippies, daydreamers, and what have you. Most people in society do just that, providing these “soft landings” as you say, blaming the critic’s mind or personality instead of keeping the focus on the real arena of the trouble, these pros and cons we find on inspection. Failing to accept the terms of the argument and seeking an easy out by calling for the forfeiture of your opponent on the grounds of your discomfort with the facts of our not-so-bright reality.

      We could seek unconditional acceptance for ourselves and try to extend the same offer to others. But perhaps that’s all there is to any society which has gone the wrong route (destroying the ecology; verging on the most inhumane; marketing apathy and vengeance; repeatedly handing the debt of correction and cleanup to the next generation): the unconditional acceptance that “this is the way things work” — “either you accept these errors as our normal way of life, or you get the heck out”.

      Hereby showing that unconditional acceptance is a perpetuator of wrong and harmful “traditions”, I think it’s safe to say that unconditional acceptance is neither lacking in our modern culture nor is a cure-all for the problems faced by our civilization.

      There is a primitive culture in Africa known as the !Kung (pronounced *ch* – Kung’) that live by one simple artificial rule, that if you leave their culture to seek civilization, you cannot be accepted back into the tribe. Their way of life has been reported to be a fusion with nature and a carefree and joyrous existance as if in Biblical Eden. But they protect this way of life with unconditional unacceptance, so that pollutants don’t come straying back into the water, so to speak.

      John Zerzan is a critical essayist who brings to light new developments in anthropology (including the findings of the new field of paleopathology, extremely valuable for the insight they offer into the steadily increasing sickness of our modern civilization). He publishes under Autonomedia Press, with free rights to copy and distribute (with copyright and authorship intact). If there were ever a list of those cons that come up when you ask yourself, “am I providing direction towards what’s right for those I am leading”, his essays can be considered an encyclopedia of them.

      I went to Oregon to seek an audience with Zerzan but never managed to get my situation together (wherever I go I’m typically homeless and either streeting or camping) to do so. I had been looking for an anarcho-primitivist element that was reportedly based on Oregon (you may have heard of the Black Bloc, and many of the members of the primitivist enclave claimed membership in the same group known for publically disrupting the closed-door international leadership meetings in Seattle some years back). But all of that resistance subculture had already dissolved, with several members facing extended prison sentences for burning up SUVs and falling under the Patroit Act’s anti-terrorism penalties. I had been hoping to talk with this (reluctant) leader and this dangerous group about their feelings on creating a gradually more primitive group experiment, a la the Biodome project, but obviously they had already found their tipping point.

      These people, it could be said, had some of the most compact and prepared verbal knowledge concerning the wrongs that leaders typically make and the existance humanity shared before most of these wrongs began. And yet they still couldn’t provide leadership for their selves that kept them safe and secure (I don’t think prison quite meets the criteria).

      So we know that knowledge isn’t the necessary attribute. And I think I can still stand on the point that unconditional acceptance isn’t, either. But I do sense what you are calling for, and I think I could put it into different words: unconditional love; inalienable rights; or unshakable self-guidance. Something like that.

      You’re describing something obviously uninhibited or unrestrained, but all the more positive for oneself and others because of it. It would be interesting to see if, in that context, yourself and others could put their finger on exactly what that is. Obviously it’s something widely and strongly inhibited or restrained by modern society at large.

  4. Carol G

    This touches slightly on a pet peeve of mine. The word ‘kids’ versus ‘children’. When I was a child, my very proper grandmother would not accept this slang word! According to her, ‘kids are baby goats’. Children, students, youngsters, young people, boys and girls – these were the proper words.

    Which term seems to be more respectful – kid or child? Our words are very powerful! If we want to raise respectful adults, we should raise them with respect in how we speak about them as well as how we treat them.

    • danmulhern

      Duly noted, Carol. I have my semantic pet peeves, as well!

  5. Jan Pardy

    What an interesting thought. We are raising adults. As a teacher I often have the end target in mind. Even as a third grade teacher I think about what is it that the children in front of me will need to be productive adults and great citizens. But I do have a problem with the thought of pushing them out the door as opposed to embracing them. An embrace can be the encouragement that a child (fledgeling adult) needs to be daring enough to take the risk to step into the unknown. Like the Picasso picture, there needs to be a balance. Arms close enough to help out if you fall, but far enough to allow you to take that first step.

    Jan

    • danmulhern

      Jan,
      If you get a chance get a copy of the movie, “A Touch of Greatness.” This teacher so loved these kids – right where they were – that the most natural thing for them to do was to push off. Heck, we all need an embrace from time to time, but the way he RESPECTED these kids seemed to touch a place of confidence, of self assurance, and they naturally launched off from there.
      Have your principal buy it (or borrow it from the library) for a career day. It’s really something!
      D.

  6. M. Carolyn Singleton

    I am the mother of 3 adult young ladies ranging from 36-43 and I agree wholeheartly with this thought pattern. I experimented with this method “back in the day”. My sister and I used to say we were raising our children to be whole-functioning sub-adults .. It did not mean we wanted them to have less of a childhood, however we did follow the teachings of one of our favorite poets: Kahil Gibran, who says ” Our children come through us, not to us.” Thank you for this perspective on child-rearing, the opportunity to comment on it and the confirmation that maybe we were just ahead of our time.

  7. Tom Grove

    I loved your comments on raising leaders. In fact I was “googling” that very topic when I came upon this site.

    I was actually searching for an essay I read in college some years ago. It was written by a woman somewhere around 1900, and it was talking about raising men instead of boys, that think for themselves, instead of waiting for instructions.

    I’m hoping you might know what I’m referring to. I can’t remember the author nor the name of the essay. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    • dan

      Tom,
      I wish I could help you out on that one. If you find it let me know. As the “first gentleman,” and as I watch President Clinton it’s caused me to think more and more about what it’s like to view the world as my professors used to say qua (latin for “as”) man. I feel as though you could chip away the stuff that makes me Catholic, left-handed, son of Jack and Mary, lower middle class, etc., and find a part that is just MALE. I’m curious what you’ll find about raising boys vs. raising men.
      On that general topic there is a wonderful book called Raising Cain, about raising emotionally healthy boys. Glad you found my website. Let me know what else you find!
      – Dan

  8. Tom Grove

    Thanks Dan for the prompt response. I will definitely check out the book, and most certainly let you know if I have any luck on finding that essay. Thanks again.

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