Since the start of my career, I’ve been rightfully advised to seek out strong female leaders for mentorship. They’re not too hard to find. A quick Internet search yields a smattering of girl bosses to look up to. But a casual comment made after a work event made me realize something pretty profound. That perhaps the finest example of strong female leadership was far closer, and, because of her general aversion to social media, not Google-able.
Recently, iris Atlanta developed an initiative we called Take Your Mother to Work Day. The idea was to invite our mothers to the office, and celebrate their contributions to the rise of women in the workforce. The event was a hit with moms and staff, but as I drove my own mother home afterward, I was a bit taken back by her last word on the event:
“Well, I learned one thing. I never would have made it as a business lady.”
In the days following, I thought about what she said. A lot. And I’ve come to a very confident, well-considered response: I, respectfully, disagree.
My mom didn’t go back to work after she had me. But, for all intents and purposes, I was her employer. A needy, whiny, outrageously demanding boss who was literally incapable of wiping her own ass. Miranda Priestley had nothing on this obstinate toddler. Trust.
As I grew up though, the tables turned, and Mom was promoted to chairman of our household and, by default, me. And while neither of us realized it at the time, some of the most important skills I would need to become a strong leader, I would learn by watching her:
1. If You Want the Buck to Stop with You, Stop Passing the Buck
“You just wait ’til your father gets home” was not a common phrase in my childhood. Our house was Mom’s domain, and she didn’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to make a call. Allowance negotiation, chore allocation, curfew-setting, dessert cutbacks — these were all policies set in place and enforced by my mom. She wasn’t going to wait for my dad to get home. She did what had to be done, and accepted all the tears and tantrums that met her “totally unfair” rules, just as graciously as hugs and kisses for the She-Ra birthday party dreams she fulfilled.
See, the trouble with being the decision maker is that you are solely responsible for the outcome of your decisions. And, frankly, many people prefer to spread the responsibility around — it’s a great way to make a clean exit if everything goes to hell. Watching my mom take control of her space, and actually run it, was a key influence on the type of leader I wanted to be.
Sometimes there is no committee. If you’re the boss, and you pass the buck, you’ve just sent a clear message that you’re not really the one in charge around here. And that is a recipe for a loss of respect from your staff, or a 13-year-old daughter with a belly button ring, respectively.
2. ‘Because I Said So’ Doesn’t Cut It
Mom had this certain way of setting boundaries that, even if I vehemently disagreed with them, I knew somewhere in my angsty teenage heart that she put them in place with the intention of doing what was best for me. Why? Because I had seen her fight in my corner when the boundaries set upon me were unfair. Ever seen a grown man be steadily forced out of a room by an aggressive haranguing delivered by a five foot two woman? I have.
This taught me the importance of establishing a precedent. You have to find opportunities to earn a base level of trust from your team. Opportunities that prove you’re committed to the best interest of the lot. Because, when you assume a leadership role, you will eventually have to make difficult, sometimes downright heart breaking, decisions. And while the precedent you set and the trust you earn won’t make those decisions any easier, your team will have a clearer understanding of your intentions. And sometimes, that can make all the difference.
3. Don’t Expect To Be Thanked
Motherhood, by and large, is a pretty thankless gig. Sure, I’ve presented my mom with plenty of cards and flowers on a certain Sunday in May, but, given the countless dinners she cooked, fevers she broke and school faculty she verbally accosted on my behalf (see above), I would venture to say I haven’t done enough. As a kid, I absorbed her efforts as typical mom behavior, and ostensibly, nothing special. It’s my theory that I won’t truly understand the extent of what she did for me until I’m a parent myself, but, as a generally responsible adult, I’m starting to get the picture.
Gratitude is influenced by expectation. And expectation, many times, is all about perspective. If you’re in a leadership role, you’ve likely already been in your direct reports’ shoes, but, they have yet to experience the demands and responsibilities of your job. And without that familiarity…many of your efforts will be seen as, you guessed it, nothing special.
So, no. You will not be thanked for every little thing you do to protect and cultivate the team and the business. My mom found gratitude in my personal achievements and the generally responsible adult I turned out to be. I find it in the standout work my team puts forth, the extra hours they put in to create something amazing, and the privilege it is to help them grow into stronger creatives.
4. You’re Going to Screw Up, It’s What You Do After That Really Matters
Perhaps the single most important thing I learned from my mother, I learned when she failed. As a child, I, like many children, believed my mom was all-knowing, all-seeing and a paradigm of perfection. So, the first time she dropped the ball on one of the 100 responsibilities she juggled daily, it was like finding out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. But to hear her apologize for it was utterly surreal. Under normal circumstances, that was my line. This was the first time that I felt like the respect between us ran both ways.
And from this rare misstep, I learned how to accept and recover from failure.
Moms make mistakes. Managers make mistakes. You have to accept the fact that you can’t be a paragon of agency leadership 24 hours a day, 261 days a year. It’s not achievable. It’s the opposite of a SMART goal. So when you do fail, take your lumps. Understand that apologies are not a sign of weakness; they are a sign of respect. And while they may not fix what you broke, in the end, they will mean something.
Finally, I Get the Last Word
So, Mom, this part’s just for you…
You never would have made it as a business lady? I would beg to differ. During your tenure, you accepted a huge responsibility, prioritized what was best for those you managed, found purpose and inspiration in the success of others and took equal ownership of your hits and your misses.
Now, if I may return the favor with a piece of advice: stop selling yourself short. Ultimately, you’ve pulled off what every great business leader in history set out to do: set an example that inspires others to deliver their best.
And I’m off to do just that. I’ll call when I get there.