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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Smart

Designated Grownups: A Kind-of Tutorial

The world is full of designated grownups. You might be one because of your job, or your role in a family, or in a community. Designated grownups are supervisors, parents, elected officials, managers. The thing that they all are? Leaders.

There are certain fundamental things that leaders have to do. Based on my many decades on the planet making mistakes (and trying to fix them, with mixed results), Army-ing, reading a lot (and not just cake recipes), being a parent (and perfecting the inflection of many a swear word during that messy process) being a teacher in a public school system, seeing the example of my own parents and Army bosses and friends, I’ve got a list in my mind of what being a leader includes. It’s kind of a leader bottom line (in my not-humble opinion). I guess you could still be a leader and not do these things, but I think you’d be a pretty terrible leader.

Let me preface this list by saying that I have done every one of these things wrong, many times. I was a crappy platoon leader and I still cringe at some of the things I said to soldiers when I was a captain. I am deeply embarrassed by, alternatingly, my incompetence and my lack of empathy as a supervisor - even 5 and 15 and 25 years later.

Can I change it now? No.

But I can make sure I don’t do it again. The important thing is to recognize what you did wrong, and fix it. Like Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Daily, I try. You just...gotta. I mean, why else are we here?

Here is the list:

1. Check in with your people.

-Learn who they are, as people. Know them beyond what they do for your company, or their roles as your kids.

-Ask how they are. Mean it.

-Listen to the ENTIRE answer. Listen with your ears, and your eyes, and your knowledge of the person and their backstory, and what they are going through in other parts of their life besides the one that connects you professionally. Listen with your empathy. Listen to the needs they’re communicating without words.

-In these conversations, ask them “do you want me to problem solve, or do you need me to just listen?” I stole that from my brilliant friend Clare and will use it forever and ever.

-Follow up. Like, legitimately follow up. Sending an email that says, “If you need anything, feel free to reach out” doesn’t count. That hits the tennis ball of responsibility back into your subordinate’s/kid’s court. That’s punting at 3rd and 1. (Yes, these are two sports metaphors that I didn’t use entirely correctly, but we’re 11 months into a pandemic quarantine so I’ll take any words I can produce in a row). If you’re the leader, do the leading.

2. COMMUNICATE. Communicate often. Communicate genuinely. Communicate with your humanity. Communicate with your people, not at them. Above all, communicate honestly. Assume the person you are talking to is capable of handling a situation, so give them all the information.

-Omitting information to “protect” the other person (and this could be a coworker, subordinate, or your kids) tells the person you don’t think they can handle things. It infantilizes the person and makes them feel powerless.

-Leaving out information is a trust killer. Giving partial information, or couching it in broad terms to avoid difficult discussions, tells your employee, or kid, or spouse, or constituency that you don’t trust them. This causes resentment. Resentment destroys relationships. Worse, it’s insidious. Scientific studies have proven that resentment in a relationship is harder to get rid of than Tom Brady and the Super Bowl. Even if it changes teams, IT STILL GOES TO THE SUPERBOWL.

-A note: resentment by the employee (or your kid) is 99.9999 times out of 100 NOT the responsibility of the employee (or your kid) to fix. It is the LEADER’s job to address it, and address it fairly. Even if it’s not, you’re the leader. You can help guide them through the situation. You kinda have to. You’re the designated grownup.

3. Let go of your ego.

-Encourage your people to ask questions, even questions that make you uncomfortable. This is very important: Your discomfort is about you, not about them. Don’t put it on them by shutting down the communication (disallowing it, pretending the issue isn’t there) or shutting down the person (telling them that’s a stupid question, to figure it out themselves, or to focus on something more important).

-If you don’t know the answer, say so. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t know the answer. Nobody knows everything, and nobody trusts a leader who acts like they know everything.

-Be vulnerable with your people. They need to know you’re a real person, not just the evil stepmother telling them to scrub the hearth faster, do more chores, sacrifice their personal life, or they’ll never go to the ball. They need to see that you care about them as people, not just as producers of labor or wearers of your last name.

4. Build community. Relationships are all that matters. All the rest of it: the numbers, the charts, the “there’s not enough of XYZ to share with others, so they’re on their own” principles that guide a lot of our processes; none of that freaking matters. They’re just systems, mental frameworks, that people made up. This pandemic is showing us that leadership isn’t about dudes (or dudettes) in well-cut suits standing in front of a podium or at a conference table in an office suite, making decisions that the little people down at street level are happy to receive like tiny crumbs. In the past year, the leaders who did well, who did GOOD, who fixed the problems — or legitimately tried to — have been the leaders who realized that we all need to work together to survive. Working together means helping each other.

There’s a lot of talk about fight or flight as human instincts in time of crisis or threat. I read an article that talks about a third tendency, one that is just as valid and prevalent: tend and befriend. How many times have we seen this process play out in the last year?


Heart-fillingly, soul-replenishingly, life-reaffirmingly, countlessly, many times.

A caveat: I’m not talking about the very real, very destructive, power grabbing, people-hating, unkind, exclusionary, anti-immigrant, anti-poor, racist, foundation-shaking, systemic actions that we’ve watched many leaders at all levels take over the past half decade, and even more since the start of the pandemic. I’m talking about the counter to that; the “we have a broader responsibility here” actions that businesses and local governments and cities have taken to care for their entire communities.

Here’s an example: a university in a pandemic that recognizes that it is not building processes solely to address emergency response in terms of tracking sick people, but rather is holistically building a system to care for each patient across a broad spectrum of needs: medical care, isolation quarters, food, daily check-ins, communication with faculty, students, parents, medical professionals, professors. Most importantly, they’re doing it transparently. I’m looking at you, Virginia Tech. The university recognizes the big-ness of the moment, and has decided, quite deliberately, to NOT ignore the importance of the structural decisions it needs to make (and the long-term procedures it is creating in the process). In doing so, the Hokies are creating a model that can be shared and across broad swaths of community organizations: K-12 schools, towns, states, emergency management agencies.


Helping each other should not be solely a grassroots process. Helping your neighbor is imperative, don’t get me wrong. I love a good human interest story as much as the next middle-aged person. But taking care of community should not be left to a single mother in Chicago running a food pantry out of her garage for the last 10 years, using her own small paycheck to buy food and essentials for those less advantaged than she is. (True story. You can Google her, she’s amazing).


The older I get (and the longer I’ve parented), the more stubbornly I believe this: the work should reside where the work should reside. As wonderful as this woman in Chicago is, it is NOT HER JOB to feed her community. What I mean is, it’s not solely HER responsibility. It’s society’s. It’s OUR responsibility, all of us.

5. Don’t be a jerk. This is the most important rule of all. the right thing, okay? Is it easy? No. Is it going to make some people mad? Maybe. Does that matter? No. The point is, you have to do the right thing even when nobody is watching—because and only because—it’s the right thing. When my kids were growing up, I told them the bottom line is this: when you don’t know what to do, be decent. Always be decent. And if you ever catch yourself not being decent, stop. Fix it. Make it right. Apologize. And as soon as you can, get back to being decent again. That’s all there is to it.

There is a Bible verse that has always stuck with me, because its purpose is to remind us of our shared humanity (and more importantly, our shared obligation to each other). It’s from Matthew 25:40-45, and it says this:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

If you are a designated grownup, thank you. Keep on keeping on. Lead, and do it for your people. And do it with love.

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