What Potty Training Teaches Me About Leadership

It’s our third time to potty train. I hate this part of parenting. I love my four kids, but I hate potty training them. I try to allow life experiences to teach me something – particularly the miserable ones. So here is my attempt to share what I have learned from potty training a toddler, in regards to leadership in business.

We had our fourth child in November. When I walked out of Target with two boxes of different sized diapers under each arm I declared, “No more!” And thus, potty training a 2 year and 3 month-old toddler began. Here is what I have gleaned so far in this parental rite of passage as it relates to leadership:

  1. You cannot make another person do anything they don’t want to do. We did the boot camp method: Strip the child down to their birthday suit, pump them full of juice, cover the furniture, and put them on the potty constantly. He got the hang of number one, but number two didn’t take. We can sit the kid on the potty, we can coax him and even get stern with him – but we can’t make him use it. Leaders would do well to remember that the people they lead are less obligated to follow them than children are their parents. You can’t make someone do anything. As leaders, we need a more compelling reason for people to heed our guidance.
  2. Incentives work. While struggling through teaching him how to do number two, we realized that we’d forgotten one of the staples of parenting – when nothing else works, bribe them. Okay, we’re really not that shallow. But seriously, appropriate incentives can help to modify behavior. Fruit Loops seemed to do the trick for this little guy. We put the box by the potty. We promised him a handful if he would just “poo-poo in the potty.” At first, he was reluctant. Little by little he understood what awaited him after a successful potty experience. At some point, the allure of Fruit Loops will wear off – but hopefully potty time will be as natural to him as breathing by the time it does. As leaders, we must look for ways to provide incentive for our teams. Sometimes that incentive is monetary. Sometimes incentives are intangible, such as a simple “job well done.” Sometimes incentive is getting your teammates to buy into something bigger than the both of you. Regardless, there has to be something to motivate people to follow you.
  3. Be Patient. We’re on week 4 of potty training, and he’s doing pretty well. The first week it was two steps forward and three steps back. The second week it was two steps forward and one step back. Now its four steps forward and one step back. Significant behavioral change rarely happens overnight. It takes an understanding heart, and a patient spirit. That doesn’t mean that you don’t keep pushing those you lead forward. But when they stumble, don’t beat them up for it. Encourage them that they can do it, and be there to help them when they fail. Sometimes, they way we handle failure for our teammates will give us the right to share in their victory at a later date. Remember, we are all human and prone to “accidents.” Strive for excellence, while being compassionate along the way.
  4. Prayer matters in everything. Our first potty training experience for our oldest son was a nightmare. I’ve never felt like more of a failure at anything. So I realized that prayer needed to start on day one for our third child to get the hang of this thing. I prayed (and continue to pray) that God would give him a desire to use the potty. If all we have done is behavior modification (aka fruit loops for using the potty) that will not create lasting change. Only when the desire of the heart is changed, does behavior ultimately change. I can’t change the heart, but God can. We can’t change the hearts of those that we lead. But we have an obligation to pray for them. Let me say that again, we have an obligation to pray for them. I don’t do this as much as I should, but I do this more than I once did. If we want to see our teammates become everything that we know they can be, before we strategize and before we mobilze, we need to pray for them.

Parents never stop learning. It is our third time to do this, yet I am learning still (sometimes the very same lessons I thought I already learned). Maybe in a couple of years, when child number four is old enough to potty train, I’ll have this down pat. Nah, I know better than that. A parent is always learning. So is a business leader.