Jun 2023
10 Min Read

Being a dad made me a better leader

Embrace your vulnerabilities

I became a father in 2014. My wife and I had been trying for years to adopt, but hadn’t had any luck starting our family yet. This all changed the Monday before Christmas when we were surprised with a phone call from our adoption agency informing us that a mother in Detroit had just given birth and had picked us to be the adoptive parents. We dropped everything and were on a plane to Michigan a few short hours later.

I’ll tell you the whole story some other time but, for sake of this article, what you need to know is that we walked out of Sinai Grace hospital two days later with our first child, Finn. Behold the cutest damn kid you’ve ever laid eyes on —

My son Finn and wife Cyndi

Having Finn has been the single most incredible adventure I’ve ever experienced, and I freaking love every second I get to spend with the little tike. There is also no doubt that being a parent changes everything. If you have the right perspective and commitment, being a parent changes everything for the better — Life just gets more… worth it. But, there is no doubt that having a child fundamentally changes who you are.

If you have the right perspective and commitment, being a parent changes everything for the better.

Identity is a wild thing. The conglomerate of experiences, emotions, and logic that build the paradigms which influence who we are can be VERY complicated waters to navigate and master. My core identity has changed drastically since Finn came into the picture, and just about any parent out there will agree that there is a personality shift that happens once you add a child into the mix. The crazy thing with paradigm shifts are that, outside our own perspectives, the world continues in much the same way as it always has. We can go through drastic changes internally when externally things remain pretty much constant.

For me, the most challenging part of being a dad is finding how to balance the rest of the world that didn’t change around me even though I have changed a lot in the last 10 months. The demands of life stayed pretty much the same, while the amount of time and energy I physically had to give to those demands just wasn’t as high any more because a good chunk of that energy was (rightly so) poured into Finn instead. However, my career, the people I work with, our clients, the local church that my wife and I attend, our extended families — those are all huge parts of my life that aren’t going anywhere.

For a while, trying to manage all of these demands proved enormously challenging. I tried to keep the same pace at work, church, hobbies, and with friends. I had certain ideas for what I needed to be involved in as a person to have a balanced, healthy life. However, things started falling out of balance quickly. I didn’t have as much of myself to devote to other areas of my life as a used to. Instead of killing it in a routine of life that I had grown accustomed to, I quickly started sucking at just about everything.

Instead of killing it in a routine of life that I had grown accustomed to, I quickly started sucking at just about everything.

One day I finally decided to go on the offensive. I started talking to people I respected about what they had learned from being a parent and trying to still succeed in challenging roles at work. so finally, 10 months into being a dad, I think I’m starting to figure out the basics of my new life as a husband, a friend, and a PM at Underbelly under the premise of my identity as a father. Here are some key things that other smart folks have taught me that have been absolutely invaluable —

Make a list of things that make up who you are.

For me, this meant making a list of not only who I am as a person, but who I want to be. One day I literally grabbed a notebook and started making a list of “truths” about who I am and am not. I take a look at my list everyday to not only remind myself of who I am, but who I want to be. A few highlights from my list:

  1. I am a person who follows through on what they say they will do.
  2. I create memories for my wife and for my son that they will cherish.
  3. I love to learn, and look for opportunities to grow as a person.

Creating this list has allowed me to pursue the things I really care about. It allows me to sift out priorities each day and to fight against emotions that are contradictory to my true identity as a father, a husband, a co-worker, and friend.

Wake up at the same time every day, and make a to-do list.

I know this sounds wildly boring as a piece of advice, but honestly, how many of us actually do this every, single, day? I know I didn’t until recently. Sometimes, the most helpful advice is stupidly obvious.

If you aren’t in the habit of dragging your self out of bed every morning to write a to-do list, just start off with waking up at the exact same time everyday. Make that your attainable goal. Then, once you’ve done that for a week or two, buy a notebook (or to-do app if you’re better than me and can avoid distractions on your phone) and use this to keep track of your to-do list. In the front of this notebook, keep the “identity list” you created and review it every day before you make your to-do list. Then (I know this seems painfully obvious, but roll with me here), build your to-do list and prioritize it based on who you are. Then rinse and repeat daily. I’ve also found it helpful to share this with my spouse, because she is great at encouraging me when I am working towards achieving these goals.

Notebook courtesy of Winding Wheel Supply

Use time like you use money — as a resource.

This means you have to have a budget for your time. For me, I work better with set up rules that I follow and don’t have to think a lot about. My money budget works this way as well. I like to set-it-and-forget-it, only revisiting my budget every month or so to make sure something isn’t totally out of whack.

I recently instituted a time budget rule that I learned from zopilote.co (aka Mike Buzzard, a good friend, mentor, and design manager in UX at Google). Mike seems to effortlessly balance his career and fatherhood, so I recently asked him what helps him be successful in those endeavors. I learned from Mike to set rules for my weekend for family time and throughout the week for dedicated date time with my wife. The idea is that you set apart the weekends for not making any plans at all. You dedicate this time to family, to spend with your kids and spouse. For me, this has been huge. I don’t set expectations for what else the weekend can look like, so I can dedicate my entire attention to my wife and son without having my thoughts elsewhere. And Mike, my family thanks you for that advice.

To be completely honest, I still feel like I have a lot to learn. And as my son grows and the challenges he faces change, I’m certain my role as a father will change as well and that I will have to revisit my identity as a human being and how that plays out in the areas of my life that I care about. But, for now, these points have been key in my efforts to being a great father and continuing to make great progress as a PM, a husband, and a friend.

If you are a new parent and struggling to keep balance in your career and life in general, let me know if any of these things help you. Or feel free to share what you’ve found has helped you balance your parental and professional roles.