I always enjoy going to church on Mother’s Day as the pastor asks the moms in the congregation to stand and be recognized by the thankful majority gathered around them. Young and old, these women rise to display a stoic dignity as the rest of us look up to wonder at them. An elegant strength, we see, has clearly been engraved upon their core by the duties and obligations of care and caring they have undertaken; by the hard truths of what they have seen and come through with their children and husbands.
Having come through another winter to stand in pastel dresses, sometimes with flower corsages pinned over their hearts, they smile warmly but soberly, too. The service is one hour of peace and quiet in their busy journey of love, looking after, and the economy of management.
Rightfully, then, more than a fair measure of thanks and adulation is showered on the worthy honorees. Don’t we all have mother and grandmother stories to remember on Mother’s Day, teachings and lessons of life that we want to share?
In another direction, several well-placed articles of late speak to a recent surge in the number of female CEOs, particularly in some of the nation’s largest companies. Holding the distinction of being a mother is not a requirement for being a great leader, but the fact is mothers witness as leaders to each of us daily, imparting significant leadership lessons, though perhaps they are not couched in those terms.
In any case, by attending to some of these maternal lessons, a CEO can certainly add to her/his ability to adapt to the difficulties that arise daily. I hold myself as qualified as any to attest to the leadership characteristics of moms everywhere by taking my life experiences and projecting them nationally! My resume of lessons is long and of a very high quality—in no way padded—because it includes lessons I learned from my Italian grandmothers and mother but also from my semi-Italian wife.
My wife Jean has mothered three children all blessed with her physical attractiveness. More important, I can see that they have harvested, stored, and used effectively much that she taught–important leadership lessons of ethical conduct, having and expressing compassion, and behaving with respect for others. Especially, Jean has taught them the need to love others not in kind, but in greater measure than is sometimes offered up to them—that one is the heart of servant-leadership. My children and many others know of Jean’s servant-love through the yoga retreat she heads yearly for breast cancer survivors like herself. This inspiring yoga retreat has become a life-changing event for so many! My children have learned through Jean’s example that when we open our hearts to others, they very often reciprocate in ways quite spiritual—offering us in return holy moments that reside eternally in our souls.
One of the attributes of great leaders that my mother practices skillfully is freely accepting the role that emotions play in decision making. As a boy, when my mother said, “I don’t think that is a good idea, Sandy–it doesn’t feel right,” I learned to pay attention–most often she was right. Mom was also extremely well skilled in disciplining my brother and me in ways that did not wither our self-esteem. For example, if I brought home a report card from school that was not particularly stellar–a fairly common occurrence, she would speak to the deficiencies in my focus and effort without labeling me “bad” or “stupid.”
But most of all I learned that that mothers can be prototypical servant-leaders. My mom always put our well-being ahead of her own–always. Once Mom took my brother and me into a store with a lunch counter. We had been shopping all day and she must have been tired. But when we found only two seats at the counter, she insisted that Bill and I take them. It was such a reflexive reaction on her part—her sacrifice is something I never forgot. Moreover, Mom could instruct CEOs on how to be predisposed to see the best in all of us. Today, when Mom speaks of her family–and there are lots of us–it is full of handsome men, beautiful women, and of course all are highly intelligent and generous. Some might say that she is dear and naive, but not at all. What Mom has is not innocence but the courage to see the best in everyone. That attitude is creative, not destructive, leading to positive future actions taken by all she regards in that golden light.
Unlike her, many of us in our personal and professional lives size people up in a far different manner–we look first for faults and weaknesses, perhaps because we are looking for advantages over others. And, of course, in emphasizing weaknesses of every sort, we’ll never be shown to be wrong, will we? We all have weaknesses—they’re part of the human fabric. My mother, not at all naïve, accepted those weaknesses without pointing them out; she knew weaknesses were boilerplate. But what she could use to make a better life for all around her was pointing out our strengths. That was her wise, executive strategy for making effective use of her resources—us!
Both my grandmothers barely spoke English, having arrived from Italy as young women, and I spoke no Italian. Yet I usually knew exactly what they were telling me. You could see it in their eyes, particularly as they were most often fawning over me or trying to feed me! But they were very strong women, too. My maternal grandmother, Antoinette Amato, was widowed at 46 with eleven children. She adapted by analyzing her situation to find the best niche to capitalize upon: Nana took in laundry to support her family and gave that hard work her commitment.
During WWII my maternal grandmother had five sons in combat at the same time—yes, five! My mother, living with her at the time, as my father was also fighting in Europe, told me that at 3 p.m. each day, one member of each family in their neighborhood would go wait by the curb in front of their homes. Why? The Western Union man came then with the telegrams informing a family that their sons or daughters had been killed or wounded. Can you imagine having your worst fears enacted and punctuated each day by a 3 p.m. vigil, not for days or weeks but for years?
One day in early 1945 my mother, standing at the curb, was handed two telegrams–one told that one of her brothers was wounded in battle for the third time and the second said that her 18-year-old brother had been killed. After hearing that story, I have often thought of the sorrows my grandmother endured in those war years. As we think of our mothers this weekend, let us not forget all of the mothers who stand vigil for their children defending this country today. And let us also remember all the mothers who have had children–heroes all, who were killed or grievously injured in defense of our country. What better day to remember those who have given so much—mothers, sons, and daughters!
My friends, the next time anyone, CEOs included, is faced with a tough issue, be it interpersonal or transactional, perhaps the best diagnostic is to ask, “What would Mom do?” And then follow through—just as our moms invariably do. And have done, back through all the generations.