Lead Like a Mother

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being a mother and an executive and what those two things have to do with each other. For most of my career, I thought that these two identities were meant to be separate – parenting belonged at home and leadership belonged at work. More and more, I’ve come to believe that not only are they not separate, but that they should be invited and welcomed to heavily influence one another.

The first time I had this thought was early on in my role as an executive. Up until that point, I had spent my time as a manager hiding from my staff, terrified that I might upset them in some way, that we might have some kind of conflict, or even that – *gasp* – they might not like me if I asserted myself and my authority.

And then one day a staff member was having a really hard day and proceeded to throw a temper tantrum right in the middle of the office. Feet stomping, arms pounding, voice whining – a full on tantrum. Unlike my previous interactions as a manager, I didn’t think twice about how to respond to the situation.

If there was one thing I knew how to do, it was deal with a temper tantrum. I mean, come on, I had two toddlers! I said sternly and quietly, “Excuse me. I don’t believe that’s appropriate. If you would like to talk to me about this calmly, I will be glad to discuss this further in your office.” The employee grumbled “Nevermind,” went back into their office, and completed the work in a little over an hour’s time.

I went back to my office and wanted to shout, “Did you see that?! I did it! I managed!” It was the first time I felt like a manager — and all I had to do was call on my experience as a mother.

Better Mom Better Manager?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors told us that we would learn more about parenthood from being supervisors than from raising children. I loved that line at the time. But then after my successful tantrum-dampening moment, I began to wonder; what if you could learn about being a leader from raising children?

For ages, western society has identified leadership with masculine characteristics – over-confidence, charismatic presence, aggressive perseverance. But we have all seen the results of those kinds of leaders. We have seen what happens when we leave corporations, governments, community institutions, and churches, in the hands of men who are aggressive, pompous, and callous. We have also seen what happens when great mothers nurture their children. Maybe, I thought, these two experiences aren’t as distinct as I once thought.

Discipline with Love

Discipline takes up a significant portion of my parenting responsibilities, much the same as other parents. Great discipline comes from a place of deep love and care. We don’t discipline (or shouldn’t) from a place of control. We should do so from a source of love and a desire to teach. When I discipline my children, it has to do with ensuring their health (limiting time on devices), safety (no, you may not climb out the window!), and values (please don’t speak that way to your friends; it will hurt their feelings).

The same can be applied to managing others. Management should be about helping others to be successful in their jobs. In this frame, managing has very little to do with control and power.

One Size Fits One

This is always true. (Someone please call clothing designers and let them know!) It’s a strange thing you learn with your second kid, but the truth is there is no such thing as “fair” when it comes to raising children. Each child needs something different. One of my children is rewards-based. Offer her something she really likes and she’ll jump to take care of almost anything that is asked of her. The other child, however, is motivated by punishment. I can offer bribe after bribe, but if he’s not interested, he’ll just shake his little preschooler head and say, “Nope!” But, threaten a timeout, taking away toys, or other pleasures, then it’s “Okay! Okay!”

Kids are their own little individual people with personalities, interests, and quirks all their own. This is both adorable and endlessly frustrating. We rarely can all agree on what to eat, what to play, or where to go. But they are who they are. It’s true of my kids, my friends, and of course my colleagues. Some of them are motivated by praise, others by the work itself, and others by clarification of goals and expectations. Each one needs something different. More importantly, each one deserves to be supported in the best way for their needs.

Clarity and Honesty

This one is tough for me as both a mom and a boss. Clarity means thinking things through before speaking and checking that everyone truly understands. I’m an impatient person. I think that I will forever be working on my patience. Clarity takes patience. And then there’s honesty – that takes vulnerability. Yikes. Who wants to be vulnerable with your kids or your colleagues?

I have learned many times over with my kids that the clearer I can be about my expectations and the more honest I can be about why I care about the things I do, the smoother things go in the long run. Little white lies always build up much larger than I predict. Like the time my daughter’s hamster was diagnosed with cancer and we had to euthanize her. I sat in the vet’s office and knew I had to be honest with her. But I just couldn’t take it. I didn’t know how to tell her Daisy the hamster was dying and also tell her that we had to kill her right then and there. So I lied. I did. I’m still conflicted about it. I told her the truth about the cancer. I told her she was very sick and was very uncomfortable. I told her clearly that the hamster was dying. But… I also told her that we need to leave her at the veterinarian so that they could make her comfortable for her final hours. She would be in so much pain if she came home with us and they could do a lot more for her here.

Are you disappointed in me?  I’m a little disappointed in me. But the much bigger lesson came over the next two days when all the questions arose. How would we know when she died? Would they bury her for us? If they would keep her more comfortable, why didn’t she need her cage which is what would make her feel safe? On and on and on the questions came. One little lie. I didn’t even tell her the old, “off to a farm where she can run around” story. Just skipped the “they’re going to give her a shot and then cremate her” part. This, as so many parents can attest to, is the problem with having intelligent children. They figure it out!

And so with my team at work, too. Clarity and honesty are so much more important than control and authority. When I can find the patience to say, “this is the exact task at hand,” and also, “Here is the reason it matters to me and the agency, and why I think you’re the best person for the job,” that’s when the magic often happens.

And on and on

There’s something especially exciting to me about the idea that executives might model themselves after nurturers, rather than conquerors. That we might come to embrace leadership as a great caretaking endeavor, rather than an authoritarian regime. What a world it might be if our leaders saw themselves as mothers.

Lead like a mother.

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