Leadership Help from the Supernanny


I have to admit that I watch the reality show called “Supernanny”. If you arent’t familiar with the show the concept is pretty simple: the Supernanny (family consultant) is invited into a family by parents that are being driven nuts by their children. I began watching the program as a guilty pleasure; but soon I realized that it was an excellent tutorial on good leadership consulting

“Say again?”

Let me give a simple example. Three pre-adolescents kids are running wild, throwing toys and fighting with each other. Mom is doing her best to maintain order; but the kids are doing as they please. When she tries to discipline them two run away,; and the one who stays behind hauls off and smacks her. Her husband works long hours so she is trapped with her uncontrollable kids all day. To make matters worse, they won’t go to bed. Mom is at her wits end and driven to tears.

It may not be obvious, but many of us in positions of leadership are dealing with very similar issues, although age and professionalism generally damp down the direct defiance and outrageous displays of misbehavior (think slapping). Over the last decade I have worked with many leaders who are trying to manage dysfunctional teams where members are sabotaging each other, or the leader, or the direction of the organization. They generally do this covertly, but the effect is not much different than the effect the disrespectful and misbehaving children have on their mother…the leaders get frustrated, angry, and a feel like they are ineffective.

I’ve felt this feeling of helplessness myself and have to admit that when I called in a consultant to help I was really saying,

“Please, SuperNanny, fix this team! They aren’t acting the way I’d like them to act. They aren’t listening. They aren’t cooperative. They aren’t reasonable. No matter what I try to do, nothing works!

So, in comes SuperNanny!

Interestingly, she rarely begins working with the kids. The kids will come later. She always begins by working with the parents, the leaders. Her first order of business is to help the parents understand that they are accountable for how their children are acting. If the parents don’t like the situation, then they need to change their own behaviors, which will in turn shift the behaviors of the kids.

The clip below shows parents that accept their accountability and are open to change their behavior. Supernanny, the consultant, helps cut through their rationalizations and stories about why things are the way they are, and acts as a mirror so that the young parent leaders can see themselves and their situation more clearly.

Many parents and leaders have difficulty accepting their own accountability.

“Look at how well I treat them. Now look at how bad they treat me. It is not my fault. It’s them. Fix them!” or another common reaction, “How dare you say I’m accountable! You don’t know me, or this situation, that well. You’re a consultant that has only been here a short time. There is no way that you see the whole picture!”

Regardless, of the reaction, until the parent leader is ready to embrace their own accountability, SuperNanny isn’t going to get very far.

One of the best expositions of the concept of leadership accountability took place on a show where the child was an adolescent who engaged in fierce outbursts with her father. Dad would say something and the daughter would respond angrily which got Dad even angrier. His response would throw more fuel on the fire and soon the whole conversation would spiral out of control.

To help him see what is going on the Nanny takes some toy bricks, one color representing Dad and one color representing his daughter. On each brick she tapes a brief snippet of their words; Dad’s on this brick and his daughter’s on the next brick. She continues to line the bricks up, while continuing to alternate colors to represent the back and forth that takes place when they fight. She asks Dad to push the first brick over. One by one each brick falls and knocks over the next successive brick until they are all down.


“That’s how your conversations spiral out of control” she explains to Dad.

“Now to change this pattern we change how you behave. We can’t force your daughter to change. I want you to take the brick with your own reaction on it out of the chain of bricks. Now, push the first brick.” He pushes the first brick with his daughter’s words on it and because he has removed his own ‘reaction brick’ from the sequence, his daughter’s brick falls harmlessly. All the other bricks remain standing.

“Yes, I get that! Changing my reaction and my behavior everything changes!”

Ah! And when the parent leader fully comprehends their accountability…

….Supernanny is ready to go work on improving the dysfunctional situation.


The Journey…Step One: Look in the Mirror

The Director of Technology’s face was drained of all joy. She was sullen and unsmiling. Donna’s office was a sloppy mix of cables, computers, boxes, and papers. On her desk were a phone, a computer, keyboard and mouse. They where freckled with yellow sticky notes, each one with an urgent task to be completed. If her inner life was anything like her office, she was in trouble. It was obvious to me that she was in complete overwhelm and was suffering greatly.

Less than a week ago the superintendent had attended a meeting with some other superintendents and had returned to request that the entire district’s data and management resources be updated. He wanted a new student information system, and a data warehouse. He wanted parent and community connections and teacher web pages. All of this was great; but Donna was already tapped out, and sinking in overwhelm.

She had been putting in long hours and staying late, very late. She had a family; but she was sacrificing her home life for the job. She kept telling herself that they’d understand; and they did. But every time she missed dinner or one of her children’s school or sporting events, she felt terribly guilty. She justified it by telling herself that if she could just get this or that cleaned up, she would be on top of things again.

And then the superintendent threw all this new data stuff at her.

Added to all of this was her feeling that he and the rest of the staff had no idea of the amount of work she was putting in, and no idea how much of her home life she was sacrificing. She sunk in on herself; resigned and drained of spirit. She felt there was no way out. She showed all the signs of a growing depression.

At first Donna blamed those around her. The superintendent and staff didn’t “get it”. The demands on her time were inevitable and there was no way she could say “no” to he many requests that swamped her. If she said, “No” she might get in trouble or fired. People might think she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.

There was never money to increase staff or to get outside help.

“God,” she exclaimed in frustration, “if they only new how much time I spend updating the web page for them. Being webmaster around here would be a full time job for most people.”

I offered to coach her through this.

In our first meetings we talked about the predicament in which she found herself. Who was accountable for it?

Over and over, she fell back into the victim’s story. It wasn’t her fault. There was nothing she could do.

It took some time, more than one meeting with her; but eventually she began to see that it was she who had said “yes” to the requests that had plowed her under. It was she who created the unrealistic expectation that she could do everything, be everything to everybody, as if she had some magic abilities that no one else possessed. It was she who was unable to verbalize her value or take a strong stand for more staff, more resources, and outside help.

When “push came to shove”, she de-valued herself. She subordinated herself to others, and rationalized it as being dedicated. It was she who was willing to sacrifice her home life for her work life. She had lost her way. Her purpose for entering education was long forgotten.

As she began to see the role she, herself, played in creating this situation, she began to feel ashamed of herself.

“I can’t believe I am so weak that I let this happen to me. I am a loser.” was her general feeling.

Shame is negative self-judgment and added nothing to the situation except to make her feel worse about herself.

I continued to work with her.

“The past is done. We can’t change it. It just is. What we do from here is filled with possibility. You’ve taken the first step. You’ve recognized your own accountability. You’re looking at yourself, the one person involved in this drama that you can control; and you’re saying you can do better.”

She smiled for the first time since we started working together. It was a smile of recognition of some inner knowledge that she was remembering,

“I’m changing my story from ‘Oh woe is me! I’m a victim of people who don’t understand me; to a new story … I have a choice about how I do my job, and how I live my life!”

“How does it feel when you say that out loud”, I asked.

“I feel a little afraid; but overall it feels like a weight is off my shoulders.” she paused, “I feel hope for the first time in years.”

Her face dropped back into doubt, “But what am I going to do? What’s going to happen if I…”

I interrupted, “You’re slipping back into doubt again. Whose life is it, Donna?”

“Mine, Pete. It’s my life!”

Donna had taken the first step; she had looked into the mirror.

And so began this leaders journey