“Our 82-year-old mother was gone. It was a startling surprise to her three adult children. We each have a special relationship with her; we simply called her ‘Mama!’ Now, we were challenged with the tasks of planning our mother’s funeral services. We had never worked together entirely on any single project. Mama was always the senior project manager giving instruction to us as children: Gail – fix your sister’s hair, Daryl – go find your father, Lottie – practice your piano, and Mary – allow your sister to do your hair. Yet, at this moment, no commands were being given by Mama. We were solo pilots now. Mama anticipated there were going to be disagreements, as we started a debate about one of the sticking points of our mother’s funeral arrangements at Lester’s home. Lester went into the back room and gave us a hand-written letter from Mama dated a few days before her death. We were stunned. The letter carefully addressed our disagreement. Since it was clear what Mama’s expectations were on this matter, we stopped the argument and started implementing our mother’s wishes. She had managed to lead us through this problem. Mama had given us another leadership lesson.”
In today’s hectic environment, many executives and business professionals are so overwhelmed by demanding shareholders, boards, and customers that they forget about the lessons from everyday life. In December, I lost my mother – Annette Green Elias. Although it was painful to see her leave Planet Earth, I was encouraged when I reflected on my mother’s legacy and what she and my father had taught us. My mother was a good example of how to model the behavior you desire in your family. This quality is also true for organizations. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, outline the critical nature of leadership modeling: “When it comes to deciding whether a leader is believable, people first listen to the words; then they watch the actions. They listen to the talk and watch the walk. Then, they measure the congruence… Actions, then, are the evidence of a leader’s commitment.” If you are going to be an effective leader, you must model the way. Followers will not respect just lip service. Our mother was a good example of leading us to her vision. This article examines five leadership lessons learned from my mother’s death.
Leadership is a quality that doesn’t change over time or through generations. There are many definitions of leadership. However, one simple definition of leadership is: “the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.” My mother was part of ‘The Greatest Generation’ – those individuals who were born from 1910 to 1945. Individuals born during this time suffered through the Great Depression and World War II. There aren’t many of these people left. Over 1,000 war veterans are passing away per day. Like my mother, these individuals born at that time can be described by the following characteristics: dedicated, hardworking, loyal, close to family, love of God. Within this generation, there were distinct roles. The father was the provider and protector of the family. From my father, I learned the importance of hard work and keeping your word. The mother was the nourisher and caregiver of the family. Since my mother had to work to ‘make ends meet’ financially, I learned how to empathize and give to the needs of others. My mother always stated, “I know all my kids and what they are capable of doing.” With that said, my mother saw something else in me that led her to give me tasks that would further develop me as a leader. She was a Proverb 31 woman who garnishes respect in the community. Dr. Peter Northouse, the author of Leadership, notes, “From this perspective, leadership emergence is the degree to which a person fits with the identity of the group as a whole or they become most like the group prototype. Being similar to the prototype makes leaders attractive to the group and gives them influence with this group. If you are a leader and your followers are not engaged, what are you really doing as a leader? Leadership matters!
During the funeral arrangement process with my siblings, Lottie and Mary, I reflected on how my mother had shaped us as children to become responsible adults today. Mother definitely helped shape me as a leader. As we come to the close of another year, there are some invaluable leadership lessons discovered during my mother’s passing:
1. HAVE A FAITH - In 2018, our mother had a brain aneurysm, fell, and broke her pelvis. Lying in the hospital, our mother was depressed, anxious, and in despair. Doctors thought she might never walk, but she did. At 82 years old, she was working, driving, and traveling in 2019. Leaders will eventually run across situations where they are powerless and hopeless. A strong faith will sustain a leader.
2. KNOW YOUR FOLLOWERS - My mother routinely told us: “I know all my kids and what they are capable of doing.” She recognized that each of her children were different. While one child might need encouragement, another child might need tough love to help them navigate. Likewise, leaders need to understand their employees in order to get the best out of them.
3. BUILD AN ORGANIZATION THAT THIRST FOR LEARNING - Learning was part of the family dynamics and an unwritten expectation. My mother went back to college in her late 60s to encourage her grandchildren to seek higher learning beyond high school. She instilled a need for learning. Effective organizations need to create this desire.
4. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF - When we were growing up, our mother told us this before going to school: “If someone HIT you, you…. HIT THEM BACK.” OK! This mandate got us into trouble… sometimes. Yet, what my mother taught us was more than picking a fist fight. You must stand up to the principles that you believe. In the business world, there are times when a leader must stand by himself or herself.
5. HAVE YOUR OWN PLAN
Because of the problems that families were having after the death of a loved one, we tried to convince our mother to have a will so that everyone would understand her wishes. Our mother would not listen. She said, “I have raised you all the right way; you should be able to figure it out.” She never did write that Will. But---Mama had her own plan. She left her instructions in a manilla envelope addressed to her children. She had left her children with no debt, had a prepaid funeral arrangement, written her funeral program, and left us a letter describing her wishes. We, the children, were all shocked. Mother had managed to implement her own plan. Likewise, leaders need to have a plan. Yet, the plan does not have to be like other leaders. Create a unique plan for your situation.
In closing, good life lessons are invaluable to leadership development. Perhaps, you are also lamenting the loss of your mother or a loved one this year. My mother is gone now, but she left a legacy of meaningful leadership lessons. She had a clear vision of leadership. To mother, leader’s vision was an action word. Dr. Jimmy Atkins, the author of Leading Strategic Community Change, suggests the power of vision: “The vision must go beyond lofty dreams and be put into action… Leaders must bring the vision to life by rolling up their sleeves and participating with everyone else.” My mother breathed the leadership qualities into me. This article demonstrated that there are leadership lessons that today’s organizations can learn from others especially mothers. Both leaders and followers can use this time of reflection to seek to learn from what you learned from your mother.
Let’s pray that it is not too late.
© 2019 by Daryl D. Green
About Dr. Daryl Green:
Dr. Daryl Green provides consulting, guidance, and management training for today’s business leaders. He is the Dickinson Chair at Oklahoma Baptist University. In 2016, he retired as a senior engineer and program manager with the Department of Energy after a successful career. Dr. Green has over 25 years of management experience and has been noted and quoted by USA Today, Ebony Magazine, and Associated Press. For more information, please visit www.drdarylgreen.com.