6 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Beautiful Mother

Today is the 103rd Anniversary of my beautiful mother’s birthday.  At her 2004 memorial service, I spoke about 6 of the most important lessons she taught me by the way she lived her 85 years.  Recently, I have thought a lot about the Leadership Lessons I learned from her words and actions:

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Sweat the details
  3. Never stop learning
  4. Listen and communicate
  5. Always be optimistic, and
  6. Help others in need.

A few details about these lessons and how my mother modeled them follow:

 1. “Take care of yourself.”

It is critical that leaders take care of themselves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – in order to maximize their ability to lead others.  Self-care enables leaders to both operate at their full potential in terms of their personal productivity and Intellectual, Implementational and Inspirational Leadership Skills and it sets a great role model for those they lead.

We found a file in my mother‘s desk over the weekend labeled, “inspirational quotes.” One of the items in the file was a handwritten page titled Don’t forget to note. In the first quote was “age is not an important unless you are a cheese.”

As amazing as it sounds, my mother spent only 27 of her 30,561 days in the hospital, and 12 of those were to give birth to my sisters and me. At the age of 82, my mother planned a vacation to Canaan Valley State Park. During that trip we also visited Blackwater Falls where she insisted on walking down and back up over 100 stairs to see the beautiful river.

How did she stay so healthy? My mother was wise. Living at a time when the benefits of diet and exercise were not nearly as well known or promoted as they are today, my mother knew. When we were kids, our next-door neighbors often had hamburgers and French fries or heaping plates of pasta for dinner but not us.   Never French fries. Occasionally pasta, but only if accompanied by three vegetables – two green and one starch. And, we had to eat three bites of everything, no matter how “yucky” it was.

I can remember when I was around 10 years old my mother doing leg lifts on her bedroom floor and other exercises to accomplish what we now call “strengthening the core.“ Today, these exercises are performed daily by professional athletes and weekend warriors as well.

My mother had amazing discipline.  She somehow managed to live in the Governor’s Mansion – home of the world’s largest cookie jar always full of the chef’s homemade chocolate chip cookies – and not gain a pound! I am sure I put on more weight during a weekend visit than she did living there for four (actually eight in total) years.

2. “Sweat the details.”

As a lifelong student of business (and leadership) successes and failures, I have come to believe that one of the greatest causes of business failure continues to be leaders who do not understand the details of their enterprise – literally the micro and macroeconomics of their products and services and those of their partners and customers. The collapse of Enron, the subprime mortgage/ credit default swap crisis are prime examples. So too are the tombstones of the “dot bomb” era.

Manners, appearance and knowing the correct way to do “all things” were of great importance to my mother. As children, we were all homeschooled with the details Emily Post’s book of etiquette. I can assure you my sisters and I were as thrilled about this part of our education as most kids would be today. But I can also assure you that a few years later, when attending a formal eight course dinner at Oxford or the Greenbrier or the White House, we were thankful we knew what to do with all that silverware.

When my father became governor at the age of 34 in 1956, my mother was thrust upon the national stage with him. She knew that part of her role as First Lady was to represent the people of West Virginia on that stage and that her appearance and performance were important elements to transforming the brand of our state. A few weeks before she passed on, mother told my sister Sharon that she would make sure to look especially good on the days she wasn’t feeling so well, so that others were less likely to notice.  Great advice I have used frequently over the years.

3. “Never stop learning.”

Related to the point above, leaders have to love being on a vertcal learning curve.  This is critically important in the globally connected, technology and AI driven rapidly evolving economy of the 21st century.  As Jim Fowler – EVP and Chief Technology Officer of Nationwide and former GE CIO says, “Success in the 21st century is dependent on one’s ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn new ways of doing business.”

 My mother believed in lifelong learning, and was a devoted consumer of newspapers, magazines, books and especially her beloved NPR

In 1995, my ex-wife Patty and I gave my mother a computer for Christmas. Before leaving West Virginia, we wrote out detailed instructions on exactly (we thought) how to compose and send an email.  When we returned home to Toronto, we found several “emails” from her that read something like this:

Dear Patty and Craig, thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Need help, the words keep disappearing!

We realized that the words were scrolling off the screen – not something that happens on an IBM Selectric typewriter!  So, at the time, we thought maybe a computer wasn’t the best gift idea we ever had. But just three days before she passed, we were thrilled to receive an email from mom, announcing that after almost a decade of “needing to learn to use email,” she had succeeded!

4. “Talk a lot, listen to and communicate with your family.”

The more leadership experience I gain and the more leaders I learn from, the more I believe that communication – thoughtful, effective two-way communication and listening to your team members, partners, and customers rise to the top of the most important characteristics of successful leaders.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, my father thought it would be a good idea to return to the family home in Huntington, West Virginia. My mother thought differently, wanting it to be a short drive to see her Charleston grandkids. Guess who won?

Shortly after our first child Jordan was born, I asked my mother for advice on being a parent.  Without pause, she said “Communicate. Talk to your kids as much as you can and make sure you listen to them when they talk. And you and Patty talk and listen to each other too.”

My mother was always there for her family, whether that meant walking upstairs stadium or theater stairs to watch a ball game or see a play, or flying to Toronto and Boston for grandparents’ day. Her home was filled with pictures of her kids and her grandkids.  And even at 85, she was still the cruise director of the family, scheduling vacations, cooking Easter dinner, and planning our annual family photoshoot.

5. “Always be an optimist.”

In addition to knowing the details of their enterprise economics, leaders – especially entrepreneurs striving to create something truly new – must have the ability to find a “path to daylight’ no matter how challenging or difficult the hurdles they are confronted with. This is one of the most critical communication skills of inspirational leaders.  One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who wrote “It always seems impossible until someone does it.”

My mother was a social worker, a first lady, and a tireless advocate for helping underserved children – challenging roles during a very challenging time. My mother truly did see a world where the glass was always “half full. “ She almost never complained and had the almost unbelievable strength to make it through even the most difficult times.  When it was time to leave the Governor’s Mansion in 2001, my siblings and I thought it would be a good idea for mom and dad to move to Edgewood Summit, a beautiful independent and assisted living facility. They thought otherwise, and again, they won. One of the reasons my mom gave for not wanting to live there was she didn’t want to look like a “little old lady riding the bus.”  At that time she was 83 years old and maybe 4’10 and 1/2” tall  – on a good day –  but I remember thinking, “If you think you don’t look like a little old lady, we can roll with that!”

6. “Help others in need.”

Since my mother’s passing, the brand enhancing, economic and talent acquisition benefits of being good members of the communities businesses operate in and their commitment to helping those born in underserved zip codes succeed have been well documented. Leaders need to walk the walk and lead by example to realize these benefits.

As the West Virginia newspapers’ wonderful stories about my mother’s passing reminded us, her legacy is not only that of a loving wife, mother, and grandmother but also of a devoted public servant in her own quiet way. From her early career as a social worker to making time to support the Cammack Children Center for Orphans – even as a young mother with three small children and a traveling husband – to her incredible service as the first lady of West Virginia, my mother used all of her resources and assets to help those in need, to help those who were not lucky enough to have parents or access to education or basic healthcare. She was a tireless and effective advocate for children and women’s issues and we can all honor her life’s work by following in her footsteps

Although my mother’s body left this earth in 2004, to all who were blessed to know her and especially those of us who got to call her mom or grandmom, her soul and spirit are very much with us today and will remain forever in the lessons she taught by how she lived:

Take care of yourself

Sweat the details

Never stop learning

Listen and communicate with your family

Always be optimistic, and

Help others in need.

My mother kept this quote from Emerson on her desk:

To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to appreciate beauty; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.   

 My mother clearly succeeded and I am blessed to have learned and remind myself of these lessons from her.




Near the end of Duke’s Sweet 16 victory over Texas Tech, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history listened to his players – who asked him to let them change from zone defense to play “man to man.”  He agreed and Duke went on to win and, after beating Arkansas and will play in tonight’s Final Four matchup vs. North Carolina.

Think about that for a moment – Coach K has been coaching college ball for 48 years – that’s more than five times the combined college basketball experience of his starting five players.  By listening to his players and changing his mind, he exhibited an extraordinary level of confidence in himself and his young team.

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Originally Published March 7, 2022 Last Updated March 9, 2022

This is a photo of Yaroslav Mudriy [for critical security concerns, his real name cannot be revealed at this time], with his niece Mariya and sister-in-law Olena taken in the strikingly beautiful 1600+ years old city of Kyiv when I visited them in 2006. Yaroslav and his brother Oleksa Dovbush [same security concerns] moved to Ukraine 31 and 30 years ago, respectively, and both became successful U.S. investors and entrepreneurs.  In addition to Mariya (who is currently a first-year student on scholarship at a prominent university in the U.S), Oleksa  & Olena have a 7-year old boy named Romchyk.

Like others in the Western World, I have watched with horror as the news and updates of Putin’s attack on the people of Ukraine unfold.  The good news is that Yaroslav, Oleska and their families are relatively safe as of this writing. (please see the post script below for Yaroslav’s moving account of his harrowing escape from Kyiv at 4 am on the morning of Saturday, February 26th and his 22.5 hour journey to a safe city in Western Ukraine)

I know many are asking, “What can I do to help?”

My article 4 T-Shirts in the Entrepreneurs Closet described the t-shirt slogans of my start-up Sports Loyalty International (SLI).  Our favorite was “No Regrets,” and its meaning was pretty simple:

 Our small team of entrepreneurs committed to each other to never say the words “would have, should have, could have” the morning after losing a sale.  Having a No Regrets mindset means doing your very best, seizing every opportunity, and “leaving it all on the canvas,” to use a boxing metaphor. 

As I struggled to find actions I could take to help Ukraine, I decided to apply the “NO REGRETS” philosophy to help Yaroslav and his fellow Ukrainians. I know I cannot control the outcome of this terrible crisis, but there are at least a few things I can do to try and help right now.   Here are 5 actions we can all take to support Ukraine:

  1. Contribute to organizations providing humanitarian support for Ukrainians still in the country and over 2 million who are now refugees in neighboring countries. Here are two of many opportunities:

  1. Sign The Petition for an International Tribunal to hold Putin accountable for war crimes. A coalition of civil society organizations, including the Ukrainian World Congress, the largest association uniting Ukrainian diaspora worldwide, the Free Ukraine Resistance Movement, and others, have launched a global petition calling for an international tribunal to Putin for the war crimes that are being and have been committed. The petition aims to collect 10 million signatures from across the world to send a strong message of support to all of the Ukrainians on the ground and add still needed pressure on our governments to start the legal proceedings at the ICC.

  1. Write President Biden, your Congressional Representatives and your Governor  asking the US and all states to stop importing Russian oil, increasing the production of US sources of energy and divesting/ stop doing business with all Russian based companies . For those of you concerned about both the economic and environmental impacts of US actions to boycott Russian oil and increase production of US (and other countries’) oil and gas, please read this excellent Washington Post articleHow to Beat Putin, For Real”  by Fareed Zakaria that refutes both of these arguments.

Write President Biden here.  Write your Members of Congress here.  Write your Governor here.


  1. Support the dozens of companies who have stopped doing business with and in Russia and stop patronizing the few companies still doing business there. Write their CEOs demanding they join those not profiting from trade with Russia.


5. Pray for Ukraine and that Western leaders are taking actions to stop Putin that we are not aware of. For those of us who pray, please pray for the safety of Ukrainians, for the end of this crisis, and that actions are being taken by our leaders confidentially. Although I am not qualified to have an opinion on this, it has been maddeningly frustrating to watch President Zelensky’s pleas for the US and other Western Nation’s air support, including planes and the declaration of a no-fly zone (which 74% of American’s support).  I take some comfort in the hope that our leaders are indeed engaged in actions to defeat Putin’s attack that we are not aware of.  Remember that on May 1, 2011, while President Obama was telling jokes at the annual Washington Correspondent’s Dinner – the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was already underway. (please note that this is not meant to suggest that the US or any NATO country are planning an assassination of Putin)

One final action – please share this with others and – for the extroverts among us – download this sign, print a few copies, and ask the local businesses you patronize to post it in their establishments.

Please send me ideas you have for supporting Ukraine to craig@underwoodpartners.com.

Slava Ukraini!


PS Here is Yaroslav’s account of his escape from Kyiv and his reasons for staying in his beloved adopted country Ukraine (written in the third person):

On Thursday Feb. 24 — as Kyiv was slammed by Putin’s deadly missile strikes, aerial bombardment, and long-rage artillery shelling — Oleksa and Romchyk left Kyiv by car.  Olena, with four cherished rescued cats, implemented another evasive prepared-plan. Yaroslav’s wife Nataliya actually had left Kyiv by car — along with four beloved rescue dogs and three rescue cats (and meticulously prepared survival equipment & supplies) — a few days before the massive invasion to a smaller city to help her terminally-ill 87 year old Father.

Yaroslav — along with his best-buddy rescue cat Ma’rco — made a firm commitment to stay in Kyiv — even in the event of a Russian invasion.  In fact, for two weeks he was solo-building an improvised “bomb shelter” in a guest bedroom (where Craig, Yaroslav’s best friend at Oxford slept during his week-long visit to Ukraine in 2006).  But, soon after the Russian massive invasion began at 5:16 AM Kyiv-time on Feb. 24, 2022, numerous well-armed, hyper-fit, confident, and cheerful soldiers began to assume combat positions in this 1916 architecturally/historically important building.  Yaroslav on several occasions gave them bags of food from his ample stocks.  (Most residents/neighbors left the building by Thursday afternoon…)

At 2:00 AM Kyiv-time on Saturday Feb. 26, the Ukrainian commander told Yaroslav: “Please leave immediately.  When asked “why?”, he answered: “Because we know, that they know, that we are here.”  Yaroslav left on foot at 4:00 AM with Ma’rco in cat-carrier in his left hand, a heavy backpack, and a bag full of irreplaceable original documents in his right hand.  As he made his 1st step onto the sidewalk, a ferocious firefight began (replete with machine guns, RPGs, and mortars) several hundred yards away behind the facade of one of Ukraine’s finest and oldest universities.

After a few kilometers of walking, and battered by abnormal physical activity for many days and no sleep for 70+ hours, Yaroslav had to stop.  Thankfully, Oleksa arranged for a good American Friend whom he met in the early 1990s, to come and pick Yaroslav up at 7:30 AM — just after Martial Law curfew had ended.  Yaroslav was kindly driven some 15 kilometers to the ring-road, where after a mere 8 minutes he hitched a ride that would take him, 19 hours and 600 kilometers later, away from embattled Kyiv!

Oleksa is adamantly determined to remain in Ukraine.  But, should the situation radically deteriorate, he will –for the sake of Romchyk – evacuate to Poland or Slovakia.  No matter what, Yaroslav is NOT going to leave Ukraine (and 2 months of daily calls/e-mails from the U.S. State Department to “evacuate immediately” simply fell on deaf ears…).

A Collaboration Campaign – 5 Observations From 8 Days On The Front Lines In Georgia

Summary: We drove over 3,000 miles last week from Boston to Atlanta, Jonesboro, Ellenwood, McDonough, Riverdale, Montgomery, Griffin, Lagrange, Oxford and Covington, Georgia and back home.  We travelled south to work door-to-door canvassing to help the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win their runoff races to represent Georgia in the US Senate.  The bulk of our time was invested in “curing” rejected ballots – mail-in ballots that had been rejected because the voter didn’t include the requisite ID or the Board of Elections reviewer decided that their signature did not match the one on file.

We realized that voter suppression was not only real, but much more insidious and painful than imagined.  Warnock and Ossoff won because their campaigns and the efforts of the Georgia Democratic Party were far superior to those of the Republicans, and because Stacey Abrams and her 2018 gubernatorial campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo provided the strategy and the intellectual, implementational and inspirational leadership to win the Georgia races and  flip the US Senate.  We also experienced the highs and lows of Wednesday, January 6th.  We woke to see data convincing us that both Warnock and Ossoff would win, were moved and inspired by the words and Memorial of Dr. King next to the  Ebenezer Baptist Church and then watched the horrific events unfold at our Nations Capitol throughout the afternoon and evening. As heartbreaking as those images and acts were, we remain optimistic about our future given both the impact of the leadership and work we saw in Georgia and the words of Dr. King who reminds us that “the moral arc of the universe bends slowly, but it bends in the direction of justice.”

 “We came to Georgia to do GOTV work, we were blessed to have the opportunity to do civil rights work.”

The 5 Observations from 8 Days on the Front Lines in Georgia

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Leveraging Your Greatest Sales & Marketing Assets – Intellectual Leadership

Net: CEO’s and other company leaders with a enterprise view of their operations are uniquely positioned to identify and share best practices in all areas.  This opportunity can be greatest in organizations that operate in multiple locations with a lot of entrepreneurial flexibility to pilot new ideas, especially in sales and marketing. One way to capture best practices if to identify your brand’s most compelling assets and challenge yourself and other leaders to make sure you are utilizing both your most powerful messages and the most effective 21st Century communications media for sharing them.

My education as a consumer marketer wasn’t always pretty.  Among other screw-ups (see Leading by F***ing Up), our launch marketing campaign for AIR MILES Canada was so bad it was featured in a popular case study taught at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivy School of Business.  But somehow we managed to correct, learn from and survive from our mistakes and went on to enroll over 70% of Canadian Households as active members in the program and the company (now the LoyaltyOne Division of Alliance Data NYSE ADS) continues to win awards as one of the most recognized and respected brands in the country.

One of the insights we had in our earliest days was to make sure we identified and leveraged every potential sales and marketing asset available to us.  That included assets like the phenomenal support of our partners like Canada Safeway, Shell and Bank of Montreal/ MasterCard and the opportunity to co-brand our start-up with these extraordinary franchises.  We also created opportunities for partners to share their co-branded marketing, data-based direct mail, email and social media marketing and the business results from these initiatives at quarterly MAB (Marketing Advisory Board) meetings.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend several inspirational Year Up Graduations, from Miami to Atlanta to NYC.  In addition to hearing the incredible stories of transformation told by the young adults we serve, I also noticed a number of “best practices” being implemented by our regional teams across the country. On the flight back to Boston, I took a few minutes to reflect on the most powerful assets available to all of us who work at Year Up that can be leveraged to communicate our value proposition to the organization’s stakeholders, including our corporate partners and potential targets, our investors, future employees and students.  Realizing that I have not always been the most thoughtful and strategic about leveraging these assets, I sketched out a small matrix to use as a kind of “check list” for our work:

The matrix forces us to think about the potential assets available to us when preparing for stakeholder engagement – Year Up Student Success Stories; the Value our Corporate Partners tell us they receive from working with Year Up; our incredible growth of the number of students we have served (from 22 to 4,000) and the corporate partners who have hired them (from 12 to 250+); and the endorsements of third parties, including leading industry groups, foundations, investors, academic institutions and others.  It also reminds us to use the most effective 21st Century communications media to share these assets.

We originally used this when developing a strategy to grow our partnership with individual companies, but more recently are also using it as we think about maximizing opportunities within industry verticals like finance, insurance, health care, technology and education.

If you are interested in learning more about Year Up’s assets and media/ communication opportunities, a few details follow:

  1. The voice and transformational stories of the young adults we serve.

Ideally, we would all be able to take at least one student with us to every Year Up stakeholder meeting, or better yet, to get every stakeholder or influencer to spend some time at one of our amazing sites with a few students.  But we don’t live in an ideal world and can’t always do that.

The good news is that we have several options for virtually bringing our students to stakeholder engagements, including the incredible student success stories produced by our marketing group, student pictures and quotes like the ones in our presentations and our screen savers and many incredibly powerful videos, including the 60 Minutes episode; our Cyber Security video that features CISO’s from leading companies like LinkedIn, Symantec and Salesforce and several students and the JP Morgan Chase video staring several AML and other alumni working at Chase and (then CIO) John Galante.  Our marketing team also recently developed a 90 second video “mashup” that combines clips from the GE Year Up Partnership video with those from Angel Navarez’ graduation speech.  It is one of the most powerful and efficient ways we know to explain what we mean by “Crossing the Opportunity Divide.”

  1. Year Up’s growth and track record of success

Although we are all used to seeing this chart, business leaders and other stakeholders often have the following reaction: “Wait, it looks like you continued to grow right through two recessions” – something most companies were not been able to do.

The leading nonprofit strategy consulting firm Bridgespan recently named Year Up as the largest, fastest growing and most successful youth serving organization founded this century.  That quote, when combined with a chart like the one below, almost always resonates with our corporate partners, business development prospects and other stakeholders:

  1. The world class brands and incredible support of and feedback from Year Up’s corporate partners

The privilege to use our corporate partners’ logos and – in many cases – literally co-brand Year Up with so many of the country’s largest and most respected companies and other leading enterprises is another incredible asset.

We have been able to do this since our earliest days and at times, it might be something we almost take for granted.  But those of us with entrepreneurial experience can assure you that most nonprofit and early stage for profit companies would die to be able to co-brand their enterprises with JP Morgan Chase, Salesforce, Harvard University, Facebook, Google, GE and so many others.

We recently added these charts showing the growth of two of our largest partners alongside the one above to demonstrate that Year Up has clearly been able to “serve our mission through the market:”

We also recently realized that we have been collecting Net Promoter Score (NPS) data as part of our Week 14 Internship Feedback Survey.  NPS is one measure of customer satisfaction that is used by many of our largest partners, including JP Morgan Chase, Facebook, AT&T and GE.  The NPS survey is deceptively simple, asking only one question: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely would you be to recommend Year Up to a friend or colleague?  The NPS score is calculated by subtracting the percent of “0-6” responses from the percent of “9 and 10” ratings.

Average scores are published annually for many industries.  An NPS of 30 or higher is considered positive.  The average NPS Score from Year Up’s partner intern managers is 50 and ranges from 30 to 59.  The chart below compares recent Year Up NPS scores from several partners with the average NPS score of 14 for the U.S. staffing agency industry over the past seven years.

Another powerful way to share the success of our interns, graduates and alumni is through relevant quotes, like these from the 60 Minutes Episode about Year Up:

  1. Third party endorsers.

Many highly respected third party experts, leaders, publications and organizations have endorsed Year Up’s model and results, including The Bridgespan Group, 60 Minutes, Harvard Business School, American Banker and others.  Although not all of these endorsements will have the same impact with each stakeholders, over our 17 year history, we have received an impressive number of awards, business school case studies, and articles in respected publications and you can almost always find a relevant third party endorser that will resonate and add gravitas to Year Up for most stakeholder groups – corporate partner vertical, foundation, investor or community leaders.

One way to think about how effective you are at using these four assets is to refer to this matrix that lays out your assets and the media you can use to bring them to life in the most effective way possible:

We are not suggesting that you share or present multiple media sources of each asset in every stakeholder meeting.  We are suggesting that you use at least one media type (e.g. data driven charts, corporate partner testimonials) for each asset during your initial meetings to understand which asset and format hits both the “heart and head bulls eye” of those you are pitching to buy your products and services and/ or support your mission. Once you understand what message and medium is most effective to your specific stakeholder, you can then tailor future communications to emphasize those assets and media that area most effective with him or her.

We would love to hear your thoughts on creative ways you have used the assets of the enterprises you have led and the media you have used to showcase them.