Captain Dad: On Being a Modern Parent Leader

Parents are the leaders of families. This is not a new concept, and it has been recognized when considering things like parents’ role in leading their kids’ education and upbringing. The tie between parenting and leading outside of the household is also fairly easy to see, and you can check out other pieces that identify the similarities between leading kids and adults (written by a former SEAL), note the boost to leadership parents receive, and list the numerous lessons learned from parenting that are applicable to leadership. Not to be forgotten, The Military Leader ran a piece a couple years ago about this very topic. (A version of that same post also ran on Task & Purpose.)

All of that is to say that the body of literature on parenting vis-à-vis leadership is fairly saturated. But even after reading much of the existing work, I found little mention of some of the comparisons I had in mind. I don’t claim to be a stellar example of either a leader or a parent, but I can certainly see the overlap. So, here’s my contribution to that “scholarship,” with a mind especially to company grade leadership and the help of the TV show Modern Family:

Unity of Command

As in commanding a company, a parent finds him- or herself as the sole (or one of two, anyway) leader in charge of a smallish organization. Final decision authority on most things rests with a parent, including rewards and punishments. I’ve been known to withhold snack time or use some other leverage to get my kids to complete chores. That’s basically the same as keeping soldiers from going home because of inventories.

I’ll get supply to bring a case of MREs.

Toilet Paper

I have three daughters and all of the toilet paper in the world is not enough. I must vigilantly monitor TP levels in the house and plan ahead to buy adequate supply well in advance of when it is needed. We must also take care to buy toilet paper off-cycle from the regular grocery trip as the ultra-mega-value-family-industrial-sized pack of TP takes up the entire cart with no room for anything else.

Seriously, I need to figure out how to install this in my garage.

I’ve written before that a headquarters company commander is, in part, a glorified facilities manager. Duties include making sure the latrines are adequately stocked with toilet paper and paper towels. That duty is literally identical as a parent, except I don’t have a supply sergeant to buy the TP through PBUSE.

Doing Weird Things Because “Tradition”

Tradition is the lifeblood of a military organization. There are ingrained and formalized traditions like change of command ceremonies, and there are plenty of informal but innocuous traditions like visiting the commander’s house on New Year’s Day (although it is mentioned in DA PAM 600-60). Then there are the off-the-record traditions that are ubiquitous like marching and running cadences, some that are bizarre like the Navy “Crossing the Line” ceremony, and some that are frequently banned nowadays because of worry about hazing (like blood wings). (We Are the Mighty lists a handful of strange traditions here, and Carl Forsling argues against some outdated and unnecessary traditions here.)

Southern Seas 2015
But for real, Navy, what the actual eff? (via Wikimedia Commons)

Families are the same with traditions, though probably less encumbered by things like “regulations” and “concerns about toxic leadership and poor command climate.” When I was a teenager, my extended family had a short-lived tradition on the Fourth of July wherein the men would sit in a row and pass a lit M80 firecracker down the line, trying to act tough and hold it for as long as possible before the last person had to quickly chuck it into the lake. Weird, stupid, and did I mention short-lived? Sounds just like what you’d get a phone call about on the weekend as a military leader, right?

Leaders and parents alike must curate the traditions that help to keep the team (be it a unit or a family) morale up while building pride and good memories.

Sharing the Leadership Burden

I’ve been very fortunate to have a lifelong parenting partner in my wife. (And let’s face it, she does most of the hard work.) While I know not everyone can have the same situation as me, having someone to share the burdens, challenges, joy, and experiences of parenthood is a tremendous advantage that cannot be overstated. You aren’t alone, and someone else is there who shares the load and allows you to focus on other things as needed.

For a commander, that’s the first sergeant. Despite some old-school Army thought (see “On the role of the First Sergeant” in this post), commanders and 1SGs/CSMs these days are partners in most respects, and the same can be said about the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant relationship. Perhaps most importantly, like your spouse, a right hand can put up with your bullshit and dumb jokes.

I know that look.

Sickness Impedes Readiness

A temporary profile won’t stop a soldier from deploying, but a whole bunch of them will definitely have an impact on overall readiness for the organization. Military leaders are motivated to make sure their troops receive all necessary immunizations, attend all required medical and dental screenings, and generally have a healthy standard of living to maximize unit readiness. An ill force is not maximally effective.

The same holds true for families. Nothing will ruin a vacation faster than a bug that’s working its way through the members of your household. Canceled plans, medicine regimens, and sometimes doctor trips—one might argue that, proportionately, sickness affects a family’s readiness far worse than a unit’s. As I type, a virus is kicking the collective asses of 2-out-of-3 kids and my wife. (Thank goodness for that “sharing the leadership burden” thing.)

Me trying to stay healthy right now.

Training the New Guy

Unless you’re spinning up to deploy, Army units have revolving personnel doors. About a third of a unit changes out every year, which means FNGs who constantly need to be trained and brought up to the organization’s standards. To some, that’s a burden, to others, a duty. Still other junior guys might count it as an opportunity:


This is like having new kids. You teach one to wipe her own butt, then another one comes along who will require your butt-wiping services for a couple more years.


One-Line Comparisons

Here are a few one-line similarities between parenting and leading:

  1. Not all troops or kids are necessarily created equal.
  2. Leaders and parents both make mistakes from time to time.mf2
  3. Some kids and troops are just destructive and like to blow shit up. You may have to try and channel that into something safe and productive.
  4. Beware of the spotlight ranger (and the kid who starts fires).
  5. Sometimes, as a parent or a leader, you just have to join in the shenanigans.

As a quick disclaimer, I don’t mean to conflate troops and children. In many ways, a lot of leaders already consider young troops to be “kids,” be it because of the differences in age, generation gaps, or the general lack of experience of first term enlistees and even officers. Without a doubt, however, there are similarities between being a military leader and being a parent.

I will also note that I am a parent of young kids (7 years old and younger), so I have yet to experience the joys of parenting teenagers. I am sure, however, that the list of similarities will grow as a result.

Fun fact: Jay Pritchett (played by Ed O’Neill) is a Navy veteran.

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