The Parent Heart of Leadership

You cannot be a great leader without first understanding motherhood and fatherhood.

I love making statements that are provoking, and sometimes even painfully provoking. My intention is not to bring pain but to hit on the truth. I believe the statement above is painfully true and I hope it will also provoke us. It all started for me with a car ride. I was taking a speaker from a conference to the airport when this person stated that it was a danger for a single person without children to lead people. I almost drove the car into the ditch on the side of the road. This person said what???  Thinking twice, I looked over and considered, this person was single, without children, and was part of different leadership teams, so what could they mean?

Well, I can’t really remember my response in that moment, but the whole idea left me dumbfounded and in deep thought. What could this person, whom I respected and looked to for great input, wisdom and life knowledge, possibly mean? After years of looking at leadership in all of its depth, I realised that the statement is true. You cannot understand good leadership without first understanding motherhood and fatherhood.

I became a father in my late teens and was neither prepared or ready for taking care of a child. I was not mature, wise or understanding of the depths of the miracle in our hands, who was back then in 1998, my new born son Andreas. Just days before he was born, we had been high school kids, finishing our last year’s exams. We had joked around but never really understood what unconditional love meant. Nor did we understand what was coming in sleepless nights and diaper changing and pouring out all our love into a baby. We thought, where is the “off button” on this thing?

You cannot understand good leadership without first understanding motherhood and fatherhood.

I went from a boy to a man that day. It was hard and brutal. Maybe not in expression or a change of look or an upgrade in clothing, but somewhere deep within, I became a caretaker, a vision builder and a discipler of this little baby. I became a father! Fatherhood became something I started out stumbling into- failing forward, and still partly am doing now, this time around as a father of four wonderful boys. This lesson has thought me a lot of patience, love, care and personality. It has also shown me more about my own values and vision and what kind of family I want to build.

Vision for my children

I was teaching in a discipleship training school and leadership school with a lot of young people in the audience. Just a few hours before I had been in a meeting where the following statement was given, “This generation will not commit…but my generation was committed.” With that in mind I asked the students, “What is your vision for your grandchildren?” Well you may think it’s not relevant or funny, but I was highlighting a bit of truth with my question. Do we only think of ourselves or do we think further? I cannot hold onto a specific vision for my children, as they have to walk that out for themselves. But I can plant seeds with our values in the way I model things and live my life. I can help them find their unique giftings and flourish in their individual personalities. If I do that, I think I have done a good job.


Teaching our children values is important to give them a strong foundation in life. The culture we have in our family is what our children bring with them further on in school, with friends and into marriage and the family they one day will build. And some of that culture they will then pass on to my grandchildren. Values are what we fall back on when things are getting hard and what we use to navigate through life when it is foggy and grey.

These two points create the foundation of a family, and I think the new paradigm shift in leadership needed in our organisation starts here. We need to see our leadership through the eyes of mothers and fathers.  But how do we do that?

Adoptive love

I just heard this term at a meeting I was attending and it all suddenly made sense to me. This is the term I have been looking for in all my teaching around the theme of “The Father heart of leadership.” Adoptive love is when we love someone that is adopted into our family. I was at this meeting with my wife and while I have been on the more positive side of adopting children, she has been on the more conservative side, to say it politely. We have had foster children for short periods in our home, but to adopt was not something we were ready for. After this meeting we were sitting in our car at home and my wife looked at me and asked if we were meant to adopt?  I was in shock and a bit amused that 10 years after I was ready she had come to some revelation.  Today our lives are very different and with our work we aren’t able to adopt a child, but the idea of adoptive love stuck with us.

If we transfer this idea of adoptive love into leadership, my question to you is this- consider the people that you are granted to lead for a period of time, are you showing adoptive love to them? Are you extending fatherhood and motherhood to them? They might not work with you for the next 20 years but adoptive love means that for one year or five, they are invested in and they are getting in on the culture and values that your organisation carries. Even more, do you have a vision for their development, further successes and life quality? Do you take them with you into decision processes and teach them the trade of life so that if or when they leave your organisation they will reflect your vision and your values? And most of all, will they leave better than when they came? If you do these things, you will be investing in more than just your own organization, you will be investing in society, and this is having vision for your “grandchildren.”

There is a major problem with all of this. What about all the people who have yet to experience parenthood and those who never will? What about all my good friends that are struggling and unable to have biological children or even adopt? Are they then disqualified? Are all the single people disqualified from leadership? Is this what I am saying? No, not at all. I think both couples and singles can adopt an “orphan mentality” however, and therefore disqualify themselves for leadership. I have seen it in many places where leaders both married and single have taken on an orphan mentality. This may have been caused by how they have been brought up in families with big struggles or with parents who were not present. It can be that they have not understood the depths of human beings. But the orphan mentality can be seen in leaders who don’t understand fatherhood and motherhood.

I worked with an organisation once where the leader had an orphan mentality and said,“My biggest challenge with passing on the leadership is that I need to find a bigger challenge than what I had when I took on the leadership.”This statement confirmed what I had seen in leading with an orphan mentality. You see, what this person was saying was in effect, “I want to give my children a bigger challenge than what I have had.” I am glad that my oldest son is passed the age I was when I became a father and he himself is not yet a father, nor will be any time soon.  Thanks Son, well done. I want my children to have better access to careers than I had, more wisdom than I had at their age, and I want “my roof to be their floor” so to speak. A farmer would never say he would leave the farm in a more challenging place for his children than when he took over his farm from his father. No, he would do everything to make the farm easier to run, a better profit and so on for his children to take over.

Orphan mentality is self-centered and never a healthy leadership approach. In Christian work I often hear people talking about an “orphan spirit”, but I think most of the time this is manifested as a leadership mentality, a culture modeled by leadership. Adoptive love leads to fatherhood and motherhood. For years I have worked with singles and with couples who don’t have their own biological children, but they have taken on an adoptive love for the people they lead. From teenagers to adults, they have developed a sense of fatherhood and motherhood in the way they lead others.

So how do we see this fatherhood and motherhood fleshed out in our leadership?

The first characteristic is that leaders who understand the parenthood of leadership genuinely care for the people they lead. The second, is that they see the potential in each individual and call it out. Third, they never give up and offer unconditional love. Fourth, they will go far in caring, correcting and relating.

On the opposite side is the orphan mentality. These leaders don’t really care. They don’t look for potential or what this person can contribute to the organisation. They will give up on people fast, seeing some of the best people leave, and most of the time struggling with having and keeping a team. They will not come to your location, office or workplace. They will not try to realign vision and culture with where it needs to go. Relationships are based on their needs. And clearly they don’t have a good understating of fatherhood and motherhood.

Needless to say, there are good and not so good mothers and fathers out there, but what I want to address here and use as a model is the parent that is loving, caring and looking after their children, helping them to find their place and destiny in life. I believe we are seeing a paradigm shift and that is, if we are interested in working with the younger generation, Millenials and Generation Z, we had better get ready for being relevant and to extend a heart of adoptive love, creating frameworks for them to walk into. Frameworks, that in my family, look like our kitchen table, or our talks on facetime (as we are family with many locations). It’s the framework that in our family we have certain values that we live by. And most importantly, that mom and dad is there, only one phone call away, or only one arm-length away, and that under our wings there is room for more. We look forward to embracing girlfriends, who will become the wives of our boys.  Under our wings there is room for grandchildren and my life and priorities will need to change when they come around.  There is room for failing and for endless successes alike.

Leadership that once was just a position, is today more than a nice title and status. It is a heart attitude and that attitude is best expressed as fatherhood and motherhood.

Until next time

Rune Saether

Have your say