Love That Boy | Book Review

Evolution of a Personal Leadership Philosophy

Prompted by President George W. Bush to live his book’s title as a leader, Ron Fournier at first (I) didn’t get it (p. 3).

Fournier’s meticulously referenced work may be best understood as evolution of a Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP), from a superficial (or self-centered) focus to an external (Tyler and spouse) viewpoint. Recall, one aspect of a Personal Leadership Philosophy is inclusion of personal quirks, or idiosyncrasies revealing our authentic self. With emotional grit, the well-know columnist, via the story of his Aspie (one with Asperger’s Syndrome – on the Autistic spectrum) son Tyler, narrates his transformation from a typical command-and-control manager to genuine leader who influences and inspires.

Of Academy Leadership’s three Energize2Lead (E2L) personality dimensions (Preferred, Expectations & Instinctive), two highly correlate with Fournier’s outline. Part One | What We Want corresponds to expectations & Part Two | What We Need aligns with instinctive needs. Gentle reminder: An E2L workshop teachable point of view is 75% of people are wired unlike us.

Similar to reflections by Susan Packard (New Rules of the Game) & Stanley McChrystal (Be A Gardener in Team of Teams), Fournier recognizes he (and many of us) repeatedly and unknowingly project our expectations:

• Parenthood is the last chance to be the person we hoped to be (p. 4).
• An ego-inflating career that I often put ahead of my wife and kids (p. 5).
• We rush into parenthood to compensate for our shortcomings (p. 11).

Contemporary advice abounds anchored by Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting, considered the pregnancy bible (p. 15), social orthodoxy as described by Carl Honoré (p. 12) in Under Pressure “an extension of the parental ego – a mini-me to eulogize around the water cooler or on Web sites,” leading to “Contemporary hyper-parenting is a true product of our times,”  via Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise in (p. 14) The Overscheduled Child.

Tyler and Ron Fournier’s presidential site visits correspond with eight individual chapters, each ending with an appropriate presidential quote. This review shares leadership growth observations attributed to expectations from chapters one through six and (instinctive) needs based on Tyler’s interviews with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively, in chapters seven and eight.

Expectations | Management

A common leadership revelation is realizing we have been controlling, or telling people what they should do (managing) rather than finding out what motivates and inspires others (leading). On page 23, Fournier realizes: “The problem here isn’t my son. It’s not even autism. It’s me.” In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon believes (pp. 25-26) parents must ask “Do I simply accept my kids for who they are, or do I push them to become their best selves?”

Think about it. Aspies should actually be easier to lead since according to Dr. Tony Attwood, author of The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, they harbor interest in one or two subjects (p. 32) – so there is a premium on connecting with the autistic via their interests. Like many working for disengaged managers, Aspies know when they are not the focus. Tyler offers brutal self-awareness on page 73 when queried about a Harry Potter reference: “Why do you identify with the Hufflepuffs?” He answered “They are the ones nobody cares about.”

And we push very hard, contributing to the poor leader examples such as the workaholic. Denise Pope, co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared, observes “I’ve got kids on a regular basis telling me that they’re getting five hours [of sleep nightly]” and overmedication likely abounds according to Peter N. StearnsAnxious Parents (p. 53), as Ritalin production soared 500% between 1990 and 1996.

Managers, perhaps like high schoolers, often pick the easy or the popular rather than what is right. Fournier starts seeing popularity as a trap (p. 75). In Popularity in the Peer System, researcher Antonious H. N. Cillessen – when asking characteristics of popular kids, encounters a surprising amount of negative responses (p. 70) including “mean,” “snobby,” and “hurts other people.” This reinforces the importance of declaring our values, or what is right, in our leadership philosophy. Fournier ties smart use of energy to good leadership referencing Bringing up Geeks author Marybeth Hicks, who encourages parents to pour their limited energies into raising Genuine, Enthusiastic, and Empowered KidS (pp. 77-78). It’s a terrific example of a family leadership philosophy, or family contract.

David Brooks, says “an epidemic of conditional love” is shaping parenting (leadership) early in the 21st century (p. 88),” or support based only on parental expectations. How do kids respond to this form of command and control parenting? The Journal of Research in Character Education reports one in every 10 kids acknowledged cheating in a game – twisted concepts of sportsmanship (p. 90) – while 13 percent have tried to hurt an opponent. We get what we measure and reward.

Fournier the manager (Daddy) thought he knew best. Leadership is not about presuming what is best for others: Upon learning his third child Tyler would be their first boy, Fournier reflects: “But I know what to do. I bought him a baseball glove (p. 97).” The temperamental reality is children (and employees) will seek a backup if they cannot have their preferred activities met. An example: Tyler called the bench at school his “happy place.”

Validating Dan Pink’s Drive in her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington dismissed the traditional definitions of success as money plus power, two things Huffington had accumulated in large quantities as an online publisher (p. 116). Like the best leaders, Fournier awakens to the correlation between leading and facilitating happiness, magnifying his powerful chapter six.

Expectations | Happiness | Leadership

In The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, author Dr. Edward M. Hallowell recalls early memories:

“I was also acquiring the all-important qualities of playfulness, optimism, a can-do attitude, and connectedness – qualities that have deepened in me since then, qualities that make me, for the most part, a happy man.” (p. 128)

Reading Hallowell provokes Fournier to explore these qualities, to develop corresponding normative behavioral statements (p. 129), and to formulate key elements of his emerging leadership philosophy. We can apply Fournier’s thoughts to coaching as described in (p. 132) Positive Pushing. Author Jim Taylor calls “emotional mastery” the first of three keys to a child’s success. Second is self-esteem, and third is a sense of ownership of their course in life.

Drawing from the research of psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hallowell concluded, “Play generates joy. Play becomes its own reward.” It’s a key to happiness (p. 133). The best coaching relationships are often two-way, and Tyler brings his father to tears proclaiming “I knew it was important for you that we play together. So I did. I did it for you (p. 134).” Marc Gellman provides a relevant and incisive (p. 134 “An Argument Against Happiness”) distinction: The synonym for happiness is not pleasure; it’s goodness (see choinque). Fournier approaches a new and transformed leadership position: “What do I ultimately want for my kids? I want them to pursue the happiness that is found in goodness (p. 136).”

Needs & Leaders

President Clinton and Tyler are both huge fans of Teddy Roosevelt, who exemplified grit, or what Angela Duckworth described as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals (p. 152).” Perhaps Tyler recognizes perseverance as courage, a core trait we can easily miss. Fournier comes to understand with every conversation, an Aspie risks failure, and requires mettle as relayed by Alan Dworkin (p. 153).

Clinton is like Tyler in the sense that he loves to talk about what he loves to talk about (p. 155), and shares “I liked him [Teddy Roosevelt] because he liked action and he liked reading (p. 156).” Tyler, like an executive coach, after 45 minutes with one of the world’s most famous men, sat mirroring Clinton’s posture (p. 160), capturing his instinctive needs:

“Nice guy, he talked about himself and his stuff.” (p. 163)

Returning to President Bush, Fournier observes the president’s genuine interest exploring Tyler’s needs, by way of exploring his career aspirations. In contrast, Fournier still held to his expectations: “I knew what I had wanted him to be – a ballplayer – and because of his diagnoses and these guilt trips, I wasn’t coming to terms with the fact that my dreams weren’t his (p. 172).” We cannot truly lead without understanding the dreams and aspirations of others. Stephen Gray Wallace (p. 175) calls this  “meeting them where they are.” Julie Clark, founder of The Baby Einstein Company, did the same with our son Jack.

Eventually, Bush finds out that Tyler may actually wish to be a comedian, and Fournier observes: “I was beginning to think that many people are more perceptive and less judgmental toward Tyler than his own father (p. 178). Bush certainly was.” 

Leadership Transformation

Fournier transitions from manager to leader: “In the Oval Office years ago, I thought Bush had ordered me to ‘love that boy’ in spite of his idiosyncrasies. Now, I realize I love my boy because of them” to which Tyler replies:

“I get it, Dad.” (p. 181)

Tyler embraces the theory of neurodiversity, defined (see NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity) by Steve Silberman as the “notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions (p. 186).”

“Now, finally, I know what perfect is. It’s a child blessed with the grace to show goodness, even on the worst of days. No, Tyler is not my idealized son. He is my ideal one (p. 199).”

Fournier is now living his Leadership Philosophy…

Thanks to my friend Hugh Hewitt for recommending this book

JE | May 2016