I’m sure most of you have heard the saying “your mother is your first teacher.” As a leadership scholar, I’d like to extend this thought and propose: “Your mother is your first leader.” Without knowing it, in our house my mother was running the Bertha Sims Rankins Leadership Academy and my siblings and I were her captive pupils.
When my father died, my mother was left to raise his three children who were in diapers, and a 10 year old from her first marriage. As a widow, Mom went back to school and gained a teaching degree. She remarried for the third time when I was in primary school. My mother’s life experiences provided a strong foundation for the values that she modeled for my siblings and me.
When we all gathered together as a family it was raucous, loving fun. My mother encouraged everyone to share their opinions, so we had many great conversations on a wide variety of topics from current news to cars. Children could respectfully disagree with adults and with each other, and everyone knew to expect fast and furious rebuttals to any case that was being made. If you could make a good argument, you won your point. From my mother’s positive influence, I learned that everyone should have a voice, and that my own views were unique and valuable. As a leader I’ve come to know that we are all enriched when we share and listen to the perspectives of others.
My mother inspired us to be our best selves and respect one another. Growing up with five siblings had its challenges. There was the time my big sister poured Kool-aide over my brother’s head, the many occasions when my brother would hoard all of the cookies, and very often I would purposely “forget” to tell my older sister that her boyfriend had called. Whenever we displayed anger to each other as siblings, my mother would intervene quickly and remind us: “Hey, that’s your brother and you don’t treat him that way,” or “That’s your sister and you don’t treat her that way.” You had to apologize for your misdeeds and “make up.” I now know that owning up to your mistakes and making amends can build a leader’s credibility and strengthen a leader’s team.
At home my Mom refused to arbitrate petty squabbles. We learned quickly that if we did not all get along, we were all sent to our rooms. So as a matter of survival I learned how to work in a team, how to negotiate, and—most importantly—to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. My mother displayed sound, morally-grounded judgment and instilled these same values in us, her children. From my mother’s example, I learned that you are judged by your actions and that credible leaders need to align their actions to a “moral compass.” The term "judge" is Hebrew for leader. So not only was my mother my first leader but, in many ways, because she administered judgement, she was also my first judge.
My mother actively instilled in me a vision of the individual I was becoming. She made sure I learned my family's history, and she inspired my dreams of future achievements. To spark my imagination, my mother decorated the walls of my room with cows jumping over the moon, and the dish running away with the spoon. In our house there were movies, records about Chinese folklore, and a set of African American encyclopedias. There were books in which I read about pilgrim’s progress, little women, and Marie Curie. As we grew, Mom saw to it that we went to dinners at Japanese restaurants and took trips to world fairs. She enrolled us in French lessons, ballet lessons, Sunday school and youth choir. By setting a never-ending smorgasbord of life in front of me, I was able to try out various personas and interests. At the time I didn’t realize that I was laying the foundation for self-awareness; through this enriching environment I came to know my limitations, my strengths, and my capabilities both as a person and as a leader. I also developed a vision of a multi-cultural world in which I had limitless possibilities.
On the whole, my mother showed me that “pretty is as pretty does”. In other words, that beauty comes from the inside - from your deeds and your treatment of others. She taught me that I had a voice that was worthy of respect, and through her guidance, I learned that I needed to interact with the world, challenge myself, develop a vision, and bring it to reality. I’d like to thank my mother for having a vision for her little girl that prepared me in the 1950s and 60s for a world that did not yet exist. And when the doors of opportunity flung open for me in the 70s as I came of age, I was able to walk through them and take my place with confidence. Today, I am a stronger leader because of her.
So on this Mother’s Day, for those of you with children in the home, what will be the legacy of your in-house leadership academy? What values and vision do you hope to instill in your children? How are you inspiring your children’s leadership development? To those fortunate enough to have had a mother or a mother figure, I invite you to consider the ways in which your mother led you. What leadership lessons were you grateful to learn from her? How did your mother inform your leadership? In closing, please join me as we raise a glass to toast all of those courageous women who chose to be not only our first teacher, but also our first leader, showing us how to lead. Thank you, Moms!
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