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Is motherhood the secret to successful leadership?

If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything:
Leadership Begins At Home

By Ann Crittenden
Gotham Books, 2004

Can communication skills and insights gained from the practice of caregiving help today’s mothers and fathers become tomorrow’s exemplary business leaders? In her latest book, If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, Ann Crittenden, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of the landmark book The Price of Motherhood (2002), suggests “anyone who has learned how to comfort a troublesome toddler, soothe the feelings of a sullen teenager, or managed the complex challenges of a fractious household” is primed to excel at the humanistic style of management favored in the business world and beyond.

Crittenden’s curiosity about parallels between “conscientious” parenting and effective leadership was originally sparked when she noticed the advice of the child-rearing experts she read when her son was an infant was strikingly similar to that of the management experts she’d read as a business reporter. (She later discovered that the author of a best-selling title on “win-win” business negotiation drew some of his key concepts from Dr. Haim Grinott’s Between Parent and Child and other books on developmental psychology.) Her speculation about a possible connection between responsive mothering and women’s achievement grew stronger when a 2001 survey of sixty highly accomplished women found that a significant number of mothers in the study drew direct comparisons between motherhood and leadership quality. “Many competent mothers,” Crittenden writes, “are convinced that the practice of parenting contributes to a higher performance at work.”

Crittenden is not the first serious writer to propose that the work of mothering fosters the development of new capacities in both the nurtured and the nurturer -- the classic work on this topic is Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking (1990) -- but she may be the first to attempt to verify that women, and men, can and do acquire a marketable skill set through involved parenting. Unfortunately, the authoritarian, directive model of leadership — which is notoriously unfavorable to the advancement of women and minorities — still dominates corporate culture. But red-hot theories of effective organizational strategy exhort business leaders to embrace a more democratic style of management and focus on maximizing human potential if they want to compete in the global market. And according to Crittenden, dedicated parents— and others who’ve practiced mindful caregiving as part of their daily lives— possess a kind of native intelligence about what it takes to produce results by bringing out the best in people, both at home and in the workplace.

Crittenden hastens to add that not just any old style of parenting will do the trick: “This isn’t about people who simply have babies,” she writes. “It’s about people who conscientiously raise children. And even conscientious parents are not necessarily equipped to take on serious managerial responsibilities— although many are” (Emphasis in original). Conscientious parenting, Crittenden explains, includes managing routine tasks with efficiency, skill and optimism and cultivating the sophisticated knowledge base, emotional range, interpersonal skills and informed perspective necessary for creative problem solving and nurturing excellence. One must also be a receptive listener and live up to a standard of everyday “heroism” Crittenden defines as the habits of integrity ( “steadfastness, courage, humility, hope, selflessness, creativity, and a degree of self-mastery that is often at odds with our indulgent culture”). If Crittenden’s theory holds water— and it must be noted that her evidence, while persuasive, is mostly anecdotal— the ethical mode of involved caregiving is directly transferable to the high-performance workplace. Each of the book’s chapters elaborates on the crossover between ideal practices of caregiving and qualifications for leadership, such as multitasking, empathy, fairness, and focusing on long-range goals.

Definitions of exemplary child-rearing practices are liable to kick up all sorts of trouble, since they are inevitably based on culturally constructed notions about the characteristics of ideal mothers. Indeed, Crittenden treads a fine ideological line here. For instance, what are we to make of all those selfish underachievers “who simply have babies”? (Although one might reasonably predict that a fair number of upper-middle class white men, including a few innovative CEOs, fit into this category.) A less proficient writer might have resorted to hyping maternity as an all-around performance enhancer, but Crittenden is savvy enough to pepper If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything with disclaimers: “Let’s just stipulate from the outset that this book is not about glorifying motherhood per se, or reconceptualizing leadership as maternal or parental behavior. It really is a book about people who believe children did make a positive difference in the way they conduct their work lives, recognizing that this is not everyone’s experience.” To that end, Crittenden shapes her narrative around her interviews with over 100 women (and some men) in positions of corporate, political and religious leadership. But because her core sample includes just over three dozen individuals (as Crittenden reports in one of her summary chapters, there are still very few women, and somewhat fewer mothers, to be found in the upper echelons of powerful institutions), occasionally the text seem a bit repetitious. But overall, Crittenden strikes a good balance between emphasizing the value of women’s “relational” work— whether it’s put to use in the playroom or the boardroom— and sobering discussions about cultural and structural factors that continue to restrict women’s access to leadership roles.

That said, there are a couple of the things I find worrisome about this book. One is Crittenden’s use of animal studies to bolster her argument— for example, she cites a well-publicized study finding that pregnant and lactating mice release hormones which stimulate the learning centers of their little mousie brains. Progressive social scientists repeatedly caution that applying behavioral and physiological research using rats, mice and monkeys to humans is a very dicey business, and note that references to animal studies are often used to reinforce existing cultural biases (such as gender stereotypes). Crittenden— who, based on the number of reputable studies she cites in The Price of Motherhood, is an exacting researcher— avoids getting snared in the gender trap, but the fact she calls on animal science to shore up her central premise suggests there is a shortage of conclusive sociological or psychological research to back up the claim that better mothers make better managers. As Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers explain in Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs, “Millions of dollars have gone into hundreds of studies of ‘task oriented’ versus ‘people oriented’ leadership behavior… the research finds no significant difference between men and women in these parameters.” Barnett and Rivers also note that when differences are found, women are only slightly more likely to have “democratic” leadership styles, and suggest the difference may be due to the fact that women are less likely to be at the top of the pecking order and so have fewer opportunities to display their authoritarian side.

Another thing I found perplexing was that a number of the “leaders” Crittenden interviews have an unpleasant habit of describing their subordinates and co-workers— and often their superiors— as small children who have not yet reached the age of reason. (As one editor at a New York publishing house quips: “If you just go through life assuming that everybody you meet is about four years old, you can’t go wrong.”) In fact, Crittenden devotes an entire chapter to exploring this theme (“How to Spot a Baby When You See One”). This attitude, while often expressed with a touch of humor, could actually be the artifact of a compensating strategy rather than a testament to women’s new confidence in their managerial authority. Most people who’ve held any kind of regular job have had the unhappy experience of working with someone who can’t (or won’t) control his or her emotional outbursts, but thinking of the talent pool as a big bunch of crybabies seems a bit like the old trick of staving off stage fright by imagining the audience wearning nothing but their undergarments.

To be fair, Crittenden does probe this affect— but not too deeply. However, it occurred to me that the addition of “maternal sensibility” to the brave new style of leadership could be just another way to squeeze a wolf into sheep’s clothing. Is it really less objectionable to typecast fellow workers -- many of whom are undoubtedly well educated and highly skilled -- as fussy pre-schoolers than it is to stereotype female professionals as less ambitious and clearheaded than their male counterparts (especially if they happen to be mothers)? When the prevailing organizational culture truly empowers women (and men) in management positions— and stops encouraging passive aggression as a competitive strategy— perhaps getting the job done will no longer depend on sustaining a status quo that requires some people to act “big” and others to be “little.”

Of course, the far more pressing question— especially for those who’ve joined the so-called “opt out revolution”— is: “Will my years of experience as a ‘conscientious’ mother make me more attractive to prospective employers?” Crittenden’s shrewd response is: it depends. As she admits in her introduction, “most employers still don’t take child-rearing experience seriously.” Based on the anecdotes she offers in “Hide It or Flaunt It: Is the World Ready for Child-Rearing on a Resume?” (Chapter 15), mothers who listed maternal experience as part of their formal work history encountered mixed reactions, from glowing admiration to ridicule. For those who still want to give it a try, If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything provides an appendix with suggestions about how to finesse descriptions of the various skills acquired in the process of raising children to increase the odds employers will view them as relevant job experience rather than a bad joke. Crittenden reasons that if enough mothers returning the workforce include parenting and volunteer experience on their vitae, it will eventually become a broadly accepted and respectable practice. In the meantime, skeptics suggest that women who’ve let their occupational skills lie fallow for any length of time are delusional if they expect to pass off child-rearing and homemaking as managerial experience, particularly in an economic climate where qualified workers with uninterrupted employment histories have a tough time finding good jobs. When Crittenden invited New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter to comment on the job prospects for re-entry moms, Slaughter did not equivocate: “Anyone who’s stayed home for six years, let’s say, is not going to get a job, period. You’d be doing people a disservice to suggest otherwise.”

Despite the pessimistic tone of the occasional reality check, If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything offers a decidedly upbeat and affirming message for women who are presently taking stock of their options for weaving professional work and family life. But perhaps the larger lesson Crittenden hopes to impart is that although the value of caregiving as an essential resource remains virtually unacknowledged in our society, the different kinds of mastery women acquire— whether through formal or informal channels— might be gainfully applied to the whole of life if only our culture was less obsessed with cordoning off the “private” world from the “public.” In her final chapter, Crittenden concludes that the thoughtful dissemination of “maternal sensibility” has the potential to transform not just the way men and women think and act at work, but the way we understand the human condition, including our relationship to the Almighty. Such metaphysical idealism is a bit lofty for an earthbound creature like me, but Crittenden’s new book will definitely resonate with mothers and others who— quite rightly— place a high value on the life experience gained through the practice of caring for children, day in and day out. But readers hoping for another book with the galvanizing political potential of The Price of Motherhood— or one that dispenses selling points for marketing the relational capital of mothers who fall outside the middle-class— may be disappointed. If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything tends to skim over the really messy issues— such as the influence of gender norms, class and power on women’s ways of knowing, and their subsequent leadership (and maternal) styles. If Crittenden had taken a slightly more critical approach, this would be an entirely different— and possibly more provocative— book.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
September 2004

Excerpts from If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything and information about Crittenden's upcoming appearances are available on www.anncrittenden.com
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