Let’s face it. When most people think of “leader” they don’t typically think of “mother.” In fact, if women are too caring, nurturing or interpersonal at work, traits associated with “mother,” we are stereotyped as too soft or not leader material. Many cultures have imprinted within their leadership ideal masculine notions. These assumptions about leadership rarely get stated but play out in performance reviews, talent review meetings and succession planning cycles. Too many women are still told they are too nice to lead, not ready to lead or not confident enough to lead.
The world of work the world over, however, is changing. The world of work is far more connected. The most effective styles of leadership are far more collaborative. Personal success factors are just as dependent on emotional intelligence as they are on cognitive intelligence. More and more men and women are seeking greater levels of work life balance. And more and more women and men are seeking purpose in life through work. With these changes in work come shifts in how we define and view leadership.
The style of leading that is most effective for me in this era are based on principles I learned from my Mom across a lifetime. My Mother was born during the depression era in the Ohio River Valley. She was the seventh of nine children. Her father died while she was in high school and Mom started working to help her mother make ends meet for Mom and her two younger sisters. Mom married at age twenty-six; a relatively late age for that era. Together with my Dad, Mom passed on a strong work ethic. Mom worked a series of labor jobs most of her life. Management gurus would not have considered Mom to be the source for empowering leadership principles. Yet she shared messages and modeled traits that I use today as a leader, working with leaders of large corporations, churches and community agencies.
So today in honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day holiday in the U.S., I am sharing the top five leadership lessons I learned from my Mother, Mrs. Marjorie VanLier Porter.
Don’t Play with Bullies. When I was about five or six, I had a little friend my age that I liked to play with. Unfortunately, she liked to fight a lot. I’d run home crying to Mom. Mom would tell me stories of her childhood growing up with eight brothers and sisters—enough as she put it, for them to have their own softball team. She and her siblings didn’t play with bullies and weren’t intimidated by bullies because they had each other to protect one another. It took me a while to eventually put my foot down and not consider someone a friend who bullied me. That lesson I carry today. I have learned the importance of dealing with bullying behavior directly and with strength. Whether through over talking others or interrupting, aggressive people assume one person must have power over another. In today’s workplace, real influence comes from leveraging relational power and creating conditions for shared power. Overpowering coworkers and colleagues is not helpful to organizational morale or performance. I’ve learned that the best leaders shift power; they model and coach others on sharing power.
Listen to Those You Care About. Mom would sit for what seemed like hours and listen as my Dad talked about his work day. Dad worked in senior management at one of the local plants and was the only African-American in management. He’d come home with stories galore! And Mom would patiently sit and listen and process the day’s or week’s events with him. Mom listening to Dad let him know that he was worth hearing especially when he often had to shout to be heard at work. I’ve learned that listening to others lets them know their story is worth hearing. Leaders who listen can help connect the stories of their team members to the broader organizational narrative. In so doing they help those they lead find purpose at work. As a business owner and consultant, I can attest that I have come up with better solutions for clients when I have listened to what the client said they needed, and not assumed I knew what they needed. I listen through meetings. I listen through satisfaction or feedback surveys. Listening takes humility to resist judging prematurely or operating from a “know-it-all” perspective. The best leaders listen.
Do Your Best. Implicitly or explicitly I received messages growing up that I needed to be the best at whatever I did. I always noticed, though, that Mom tended to say, “Do your best.” Do the best is a message that programs us to win at all costs, to excel over others and can lead to hyper-competitive behaviors. Those behaviors are important in winning against competitors but not within a team or work setting with coworkers. Leaders who create a culture in which each person does her best, creates conditions for all to win. Hyper-competitive behaviors in some team members can lead to a win-lose mentality in a team and can decrease the confidence of other members of the team. Leaders who stress do your best send a message that the goal is not to win at the cost of a coworker or team member, but to bring the best of what’s in you out. I have learned that leaders who urge those they lead to do their best bring out the best in those they lead.
You Can Always Come Home. I left for college six weeks after my eighteenth birthday. I went to The Ohio State University, the population of which was almost three times the size of my hometown. I discovered a great big world and enjoyed my journey from college and beyond. Yet when I left home and many times thereafter my mother reminded me, “you can always come home.” She made sure I knew that if things didn’t work out or I hit a tough patch, t always had a home to come back to. I never moved back home but I realized with those words my mother gave me a failure safety net. Too many people are afraid to fail. But none of us will succeed at anything if we don’t fail at something. As one adage states, “failure is not fatal, just feedback.” And so my mother gave me a precious gift– the freedom to experiment and achieve without a fatal fear of failure. As a leader, I eventually learned that success for me meant I didn’t have to hide behind a façade to mask mistakes. I could come home to my true self accepting my strengths and weaknesses as an authentic leader.
Stay Current. The Sunday after Prince died, I asked my mother how she felt about his death and the media coverage his passing was getting. Mom said, “I liked Prince.” I must have had just a little too much incredulity in my voice when I said, “What? You liked Prince?” She firmly responded back with, “Oh, yes I liked him.” And she started singing the chorus to Purple Rain. I laughed a deep hearty laugh at the irony that I had never seen the movie, yet my 84-year-old mother had! I listened with great joy to Mom as she described her perceptions of this iconic artist. I learned from Mom that leaders must stay current to stay relevant—not just on popular culture but on our world events. And on the personal world of those they lead. Leaders need to understand the changing dynamics of the contexts where we lead. We need to stay current with the things that affect those we lead. And yes, I’ve learned as a leader that whatever the context, I’ve got to remember to sing, laugh and find joy in the moment!
These are just a few of the valuable lessons I learned from my mother. As we celebrate this upcoming Mother’s Day, I invite you to reflect on the lessons you learned from your mother, grandmother, or other-mother figure. I am waiting for the day when our culture’s notions of leadership include that of “Mother.” Perhaps we can start that shift today.
Happy Mother’s Day!
© 2016 Jeanne Porter King