You’ve probably noticed how some of your colleagues take to leadership roles like a duck to water. They’re confident telling others what to do, and happy taking on an ever-growing number of responsibilities. It couldn’t be more different for others: bossing around people feels awkward, and a nagging self-doubt shadows every decision.
If you’re in the latter group, you might wonder why the thought of being a leader fills you with dread, and why you find it so hard to even see yourself as a manager.
As with almost any aspect of human nature, some of the answer comes down to your genetically inherited disposition. If your parents were shrinking violets, the odds are increased that you will be too. But that’s far from the whole story. Increasingly, psychologists are realising the important part that early life experiences play. And key here is the way your parents behaved toward you.
If your parents were shrinking violets, the odds are increased that you will be too. But that’s far from the whole story
In particular, if they were overly protective they might have undermined your chances of becoming a future leader. Colloquially, this parenting approach is known as ‘helicopter parenting’ in reference to the idea of hovering nearby whether needed or not.
Your parents likely had good intentions, such as ensuring you didn’t face uncomfortable challenges. Unfortunately this might have had some inadvertent, unhelpful effects, including “making you less confident and less capable of facing difficulties, therefore [leading you to] exhibit poorer leadership skills”, says Dr Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist in private practice and visiting fellow at Queensland University of Technology.
Locke’s research has involved surveying parenting professionals, including psychologists and school counsellors, to establish exactly what they mean by helicopter parenting or overparenting.
Helicopter parents can cause unexpected harm – overparenting signals to children that they’re not trusted to look after themselves, let alone others (Credit: Getty Images)
Her findings suggest this is an approach characterised by a mixture of three factors: being extremely responsive to the child, being extremely undemanding in some contexts, yet being highly demanding in others. For instance, a helicopter parent is likely to be overprotective, overly attentive and believe their child is always right. They will try to do everything for their child (rather than expecting the child to handle it themselves), and might expect their child’s peers and school to bend over backwards to accommodate their child’s needs too. At the same time, this kind of parent will be highly demanding, in the sense of having high expectations for their child’s achievements, overscheduling their child’s time and wanting their child to be their friend and in constant contact.
Supervised into submission
The latest research on how this extreme coddling can stifle leadership skills comes from China. Psychologists surveyed nearly 1,500 teenagers – average age 14 – at 13 schools in Beijing. Yufang Bian at Beijing Normal University and her colleagues assessed the teenagers’ leadership potential comprehensively. First they quizzed the teenagers’ peers, teachers and parents to get a sense of whether they were seen by others as being a good leader. Second, they checked whether the teenagers were actually in any leadership roles, such as being a team leader in a class science group or a president in a student club.
Meanwhile, the teenagers rated how much their parents had been overprotective by agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as ‘My parents supervised my every move growing up’ and ‘My parents often stepped in to solve life problems for me’. The teens also took quizzes measuring their self-esteem and how confident they felt about being a leader.
The more overprotective their parents, the less the teens were perceived as having leadership potential by others, and the less likely they were to actually be in leadership roles
After controlling for the influence of a number of other factors, such as family socioeconomic background and the teenagers’ academic achievements, Bian and her team found a clear pattern. The more overprotective their parents, the less the teens were perceived as having leadership potential by others, and the less likely they were to actually be in leadership roles. Statistically, this link was explained by the fact that the teens with helicopter parents tended to have lower self-esteem, which in turn was associated with being less confident about being a leader.
Teens with lower self-esteem might be tempted to rate their parents unfavourably – but the results are consistent with earlier research (Credit: Alamy)
Bian and her team said their findings support the idea that too much of a good thing can be harmful: “In the same way that a lack of proper parenting harms a child’s development, overparenting, with its restriction of the child’s development of autonomy and problem-solving skills, also has a negative impact on psychosocial development.”
Overparenting may also create this undermining effect because it signals to children that they are not capable of independence and that their parents don’t trust them to look after themselves, let alone others.
Overparenting may also create this undermining effect because it signals to children that they are not capable of independence
It is worth mentioning that these new findings should be interpreted with caution because the observational design of the study means it hasn’t proved that helicopter parenting causes a lack of emerging leadership potential. The research relies on teenagers retrospectively recalling their parents’ behaviour, and it’s possible that teens with lower self-esteem might be tempted to rate their parents unfavourably as a way to explain their current feelings. However, the results are consistent with a causal interpretation and the researchers build on a wealth of earlier research, which has consistently shown the apparent detrimental effects of having overprotective parents, albeit that these studies have also featured an observational design.
For instance, psychologists at Florida State University surveyed nearly 500 undergraduates and found that those who had helicopter parents also tended to be less confident in their own abilities. A different team at Miami University quizzed hundreds of undergraduates and found similar results. Those who described having helicopter parents also tended to have more emotional problems, struggled with making decisions and performed worse in their exams.
Some surveys found those with helicopter parents were less confident in their abilities and struggled with decision-making and exams (Credit: Getty Images)
Your future as a leader
If you run a mile from leadership opportunities and recognise the description of having helicopter parents, you don’t have to accept that you’ll never be a leader or exhibit qualities of one.
First, remember your parents’ approach was likely well intentioned, and you won’t benefit from feeling resentful. You’re in control now and, with dedication and effort, it’s possible to shape your own traits and attitudes at any time of life.
Locke, who is also the author of The Bonsai Child (a parenting book to help parents develop their child’s potential by not overparenting), recommends beginning to take more control over your own life, including being more financially independent if you can, and avoiding the temptation to call your parents each time you have a problem.
Many readers will have parents still wanting to be highly involved in their lives. Work out a way where you manage your own life more and cease to rely on your parents as much – Judith Locke
“Many readers will have parents still wanting to be highly involved in their lives. Work out a way where you manage your own life more and cease to rely on your parents as much,” she says. Of course, these changes on their own won’t transform you into a leader, but they will help you to see yourself as independent and to be more comfortable making autonomous decisions, which will serve you well if and when leadership opportunities arise in your career.
You can also make changes at work, including trying to be more open to criticism, and being proactive in seeking feedback. “My work shows that those who have been overprotected have often been overpraised as a matter of course, and don’t cope as well with constructive criticism,” says Locke. “For you to improve you need to be open to suggestions of what you need to do to progress.”
It won’t happen overnight, but through practising being more independent and taking the time and effort to build your emotional and decision-making skills, you will find that you can slowly build your confidence – and even start to see yourself as a potential boss.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a senior editor at Aeon magazine. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2021.