As a former Army officer I’ve been to war. That was extreme and yet my greatest leadership challenge was and remains parenting my two daughters.
In many ways my two children challenge me and my leadership in ways that combat never did. And sometimes, especially now that they are teenagers, parenting seems like combat. Does that sound familiar for any parents reading this blog?
Here is what I have come to believe: Leadership is leadership, it is the context that changes.
By becoming a better parent I have become a better leader and vice versa. In fact, by becoming a better parent I have become a better leader, better entrepreneur, and better person.
Here is the greatest lesson that parenting taught me about leadership. Caveat: It’s only true learning when behaviour changes so in some cases I have simply become aware of my shortfalls and have not completely learned the lesson.
[These characters are my two daughters. This picture was taken in 2009. We were camping and no doubt I had just given them some very serious orders concerning our impending canoe trip. So they decided to mockingly salute Colonel Dad.]
Being Right Does not Make you Right.
As a former colleague would ask me “Mark in this case, do you want to be right, or do you want to have influence?” Do you want to be right, technically right, or do you want to have influence? The answer is easy—to have influence. The answer is easy when you remove ego from the equation. Removing your ego from the equation is often the hardest part. To lead others effectively, which is to say influence others effectively, starts with leading yourself. And often, to do that you need to get over yourself and your ego.
When faced with behaviour that I considered immature, rude, or disrespectful, I would often take a disciplinarian approach and confront it head-on with “logic”. When that was met with further resistance or an “emotional” reaction, I would default to fighting it yet again with a frontal attack. Perhaps that is what made me a good army officer, however as a parent, not only did this not work, it made the situation worse. On top of that, I would not change my tactics when faced with a similarly repeated situation. There was (arguably still is) something inside of me that drove me to prove a point and be right. I had to be right and that meant that I had little influence, positive influence anyway, to effect change in my children’s behaviour. That is when mom would step in to save the day.
United Nations Mission in Haiti
During my last year in uniform, I deployed as the Military Component’s Chief of Staff for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. By then I was a Colonel with close to 20 years of military service, three previous operational tours, and significant staff and command experience. I loved my time in Haiti. I learned much about the country and its people, the United Nations, and multinational military operations. I also learned a lot about myself.
The significant leadership lesson that I applied during my time in Haiti was what parenting taught me about the choice to be technically right or to have influence.
There were 19 countries from three continents in the Military Component. There were over 40 in the Police Component, and then the Civilian Component, to which all forces reported, had people from around the globe. The operating language was English and yet in the Military Component only the Canadians and Americans spoke that as their mother tongue.
The vast majority of the soldiers, including my boss, the Military Force Commander, were from South America and, consequently, the Military Component was dominated by that culture. The Police and the Civilian staff had their own way of operating based on their respective countries of origin, procedures, and missions. The fledgling Police National D’Haiti and the Government of Haiti, still recovering from the massive earthquake in 2010 and arguably much of the country’s history, had their own distinct way of tackling the immense challenges facing the nation.
Every day I had to make a conscious choice, to bite my tongue and suppress my ego—to fight the instinct to be technically right—and to work towards best influencing the outcome. Being right in these instances is not to suggest that the other parties were wrong, simply that the way I would have done things or the way that we would have done them in Canada were not necessarily the ways that were selected.
During the various rounds of Haitian Presidential, Parliamentary, and Senatorial elections, the United Nations Mission supported the Government. Everything that we did was in support, never the lead. We were there to advise and assist, not take over. This approach has been labelled as “leading from behind.”
There are certain activities for which the military is highly competent. The UN Military Component was no exception. We had the most firepower for deterrence, most deployable logistics and communications for sustained force projection, and most sophisticated planning frameworks to tackle complex problems. And yet the Military Component was not the lead and not responsible for any of those issues.
We were there to support the United Nations Civilian and Police Components who were supporting the Hatian Government and Police. We were leading two-steps from behind. Success and having a positive influence meant consciously and continuously being prepared for the worst while assisting, often invisibly, those in the lead. Assisting those Haitian agencies in the lead in a respectful manner that ensured their plan would succeed, in the way in which they felt most comfortable.
The Military Component’s support to the Haitian elections was never about being right, technically or otherwise, it was about having the greatest positive influence possible under the circumstances.
[Chilean soldiers guarding a ballot box being processed for shipment to the central tabulation centre]
I played a key role in the Military Component’s successful support of the elections. The lessons learned parenting my daughters played a key role in preparing me for those responsibilities.
Being right does not necessarily make you right. When faced with a similar choice, do you choose to be right or do you choose to have influence?
About the Author
In 2016, then Colonel Mark Gasparotto deployed to Haiti with two roles as the Chief of Staff for the United Nations Military Component and as the Canadian Military Contingent Commander. By the end of his one-year tour of duty he was also the Deputy Force Commander. Mark received his second Meritorious Service Medal and the Brazilian Army Medal for his senior leadership roles.
Retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2017 at the rank of Colonel, Mark is now the President of the Gasparotto Group, a leadership development firm that helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.
The Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.