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:
- Take care of yourself
- Sweat the details
- Never stop learning
- Listen and communicate
- Always be optimistic, and
- 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.