Not Every Leader Wears a Business Suit

Power of mothers

I saw lots of stock photos in my four years of doing freelance social media work, writing, and editing. If I used a search term like “leader,” I could predict the types of images I’ would find. The one above is an example.

But I could also predict the types of images I would not be likely to detect:
Power of mothers

Leading in the Mountains

I have been involved for years in Unbound, a non-profit program that works to help people in poverty. When I participated in a blogger trip in 2014 and had an opportunity to meet participants in El Salvador up close, one of the most memorable activities was a meeting with a mothers’ group high in the mountains.

The organization’s philosophy revolves around the concept that people benefit more from learning to help themselves (with support, as needed) than from handouts.

That’s where the mothers come in. As the organization found in a 2017 report, “mother and guardian empowerment” in topics such as decision-making, community involvement, and employment leads to “increased choices in life, positive change and greater personal control.”

The rural areas of El Salvador are far removed physically from typical corporate board rooms, but the qualities I saw among these moms paralleled what I would see in a C-Suite officer trying to make sense of corporate finance numbers for the upcoming fiscal year.

Accountability

When a mother’s group meets in El Salvador, the roll is taken scrupulously. A participant who does not show up and sign in is not eligible to participate in decisions or have a hand in how funding is allocated.

Doesn’t it work the same way in mainstream corporate America? Despite the fact that, as a Harvard Business Review article notes, “one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability,” the expectation is that accountability helps organizations maintain integrity and therefore increase their chances of being profitable.

Being Scrupulous about Setting a Good Example

The mother’s group was populated by moms of varying ages, some still bearing and raising families, others further along in life. These women were conscious of setting an example for one another (and for their children, some of whom were present at the meeting). The tone I got from them was, “as we go, so goes our community.” They meant business, and they loved their community.

Here in the US, employees also look up to leaders to set a good example. “[G]iving people a reason to believe and to follow,” is how the American Management Association puts it, and I agree.

Helping Each Other’s Children

These women didn’t watch for their own children solely – every child was every mother’s responsibility, to an extent. It may be a slight over-generalization, but it is what I have observed consistently in Central America: the presence of a commodity (food, a job opportunity, other resources) is treated as a welcome benefit to all, not to just one.

I wish I could say this is true or something I have read or seen in the US, but we all too easily devolve into a me-first culture. In The Collateral Damage of Selfish Leadership, Dan Pontefract wrote, “But it’s the selfish leader [emphasis his] – those choosing to lead with a perilous fixation on power, pay and/or profit – that might be causing much of the disengagement and dissatisfaction in today’s organization.”

Honoring the Culture

Our visit was a “special occasion” (that was humbling), so there was a gracious reception for us with local foods, fresh flowers, and unique decorations. The group didn’t try to adjust for what they thought we wanted; they brought out the best in their cultural expression.

This is a time of many mergers in the global economy. Merging two organizations can’t be easy; it occurs to me these newly joined organizations could take a page from the mothers of El Salvador and figure out what each partner’s roots are before digging everything up and trying to graft two companies together.

Moms Know

True leadership doesn’t require a fancy briefcase, a bespoke business suit, or an advanced degree from an Ivy League institution. Sometimes it shows up most when a Salvadoran mom takes the lead.

A version of this post was originally published by the Lead Change Group as Not All Leaders Wear Suits.

 

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.

Mom’s Challenge

The first time I saw Michelle Kwan skate in person, it was her first year skating as a senior at the national level. This was at the US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, in 1994 (yes, there was a quite noteworthy event that occurred at that championship).

She was so young. I don’t mean chronologically only. I mean still a girl in many ways. Bowled over as the stuffed animals rained down onto the ice after her performance. Giddy with the thrill of it all.

(Figure skating side note: her sister, Karen Kwan, also competed at that championship. She skated elegantly.)

By the next year, at the championships in Providence, Rhode Island, Michelle Kwan was a different skater and person. She hadn’t yet turned into the force she would be eventually, a combination of athleticism and artistry that defied being beaten, but she had more notoriety, more fame, more expectations on her shoulders.

Mothers and Challenges

I can only imagine the challenges her mom (and dad) faced, starting with years of expensive skating lessons and all the accompaniments necessary to a competitive figure skating career.

Michelle Kwan discusses her mom’s sacrifices here, talking about how her mom sewed her costumes to save money and how both her immigrant parents worked multiple jobs. “I’d be yelling across the rink like ‘Mom, do you have gloves?’ or even a tissue and she was right there next to the ice,” Kwan said.

Moms often intuit our challenges before we realize the gravity of them (or, conversely, the fact that the challenges we think are going to break us end up not being as drastically life-altering as they feel at the time).

When Mom Faces a Challenge

My mom has faced her own challenge since she was hospitalized on December 11 when her heart rate/rhythm, breathing, and overall health were compromised by a viral infection.

Although her recovery seemed to be on a mostly upward-bound trajectory, everything changed when she had an allergic reaction to one of the anti-arrhythmics she had been administered.

“If it were my mom, I would come,” said an ICU nurse around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. My daughter drove herself and me to the hospital.

After several extremely tenuous hours, my mom was intubated and the immediate breathing/survival crisis was over.

When I didn’t know what to do over the days that followed, with tense nights in the ICU, another intubation, and the juggling act of medical needs/family member relationship management (not saying I managed any of that — just that it’s a fraught time when you’re trying to exchange accurate information through sleep deprivation and layers of dynamics)/keeping up with obligations to my two freelance positions, I thought about my mom holding my newborn son through the night so I could sleep.

Just holding him. Nothing fancy. No machines, no technology, no words.

Has a Challenge Been Met?

Michelle Kwan knew she had met her challenges when she tied Maribel Vinson for the most US Championships (9), when she won five world championships and when she won Olympic medals in 1998 and 2002.

I pray my mom overcomes her physical issues, which provide related emotional hurdles (she had to be readmitted to a hospital after less than 48 hours had elapsed following her discharge because she fell and broke her wrist).

I pray I can figure out how to give her the sense of reassurance I had when she held my son throughout the night, using solely the power of presence rather than words to calm him.

Editor’s note: My mom passed away on February 13, 2018. Her obituary can be read here

Mothers and ChallengesI am linking this post to Mama’s Losin’ It, for the “write about the word ‘challenge'” prompt.

 

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.

Hung By the Chimney with Care

When my daughter, Tenley, helped decorate for Christmas this year, she hung the stockings up on the mantel.

Because we never seem to have a full inventory of stocking hangers, there were only three hangers available in our Christmas supplies box. We needed six (my husband, me, her, my son, my father-in-law (who lives with us) and the cats (who share one stocking)). When she completed hanging stockings, the three she had put up were my husband’s, mine, and my son’s.

When I said, “we need to get yours up there,” she said “it’s okay. I’m not going to be here anyway.” While it is true that she was not home for Christmas (because she is at Disney World with a friend, has been there since 12/23/15 and will be there till 1/3/16), it’s not true that her stocking does not need to be there.

I should give her kudos for putting her brother first. There have been times in the family history where I might have predicted she would put her stocking up and let him fend for himself.

That one visual of the mantel without her stocking has stirred up so many thoughts. Forget those creatures not stirring (not even that mouse); my thoughts and feelings were stirring.

I am thinking of the time Wayne and I went to Lake Butler for a wedding when we had first started dating and refused to stay with my parents, in an attempt on my part to make some kind of statement of independence.

I am thinking of numerous friends who feel distant from their adult children, like everything they say is misunderstood, ridiculed, rebuffed, or minimized.

I am thinking especially of one friend, a fantastic and devoted mother, whose only child has broken off all communication with her. I simply don’t understand.

I am thinking of the pros and cons of how I have handled being a parent, of the times when for various reasons Wayne and I have both walked on eggshells around our daughter, thinking of that extremely unrealistic filter that is Facebook which makes almost every other family look happier, more relaxed, more whole.

I am grateful that, on balance, I have what I consider to be a solid, honest relationship with my daughter, and for the fact that she is a lot nicer to me at 19 than I was to my parents at the same age.

I am acknowledging that I still desperately want to matter, that I can’t help myself insecurity-wise when she is leaving after a visit from saying, “you’re going to come back and give me a hug before you go, right?”

I was okay (mostly) with her being gone over Christmas because a) Disney is her happy place b) our home with all the eldercare issues is not all that relaxing a place to be and c) making her stay would have only led to having a resentful teenager around over Christmas and who wants that?

What I’m not okay with is the idea that this mantel is complete without her. Therefore, while I didn’t get a picture of the original setup, the one that matters is this one, with its full complement of family members.

 

Mother Daughter Relationships

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.