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Look Inside a Mom’s Head and You’ll Find a Leader

By Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Tacy ByhamAs we all know, being a mother is full of highs and lows. Every day, we are challenged by our kids, testing our ability to respond in an appropriate, shall we say mom-like way. And I mean in a June Cleaver, Carol Brady, Clair Huxtable, Marge Simpson kind of way. Not in a Betty Draper, Roseanne Connor, Livia Soprano, Peg Bundy kind of way. Bad moms might make great television, but in real life, the moms that get it right are truly worth celebrating.

Moms know the secretsCartoon by Steve Nease neasecartoons.comMoms know the secrets of being great communicators. They naturally have super skills (or maybe Supermom powers) that have been honed in the kitchen battlefields of homework coaching and fights over cell phone bills. Moms are able to hold off on saying those wrong things that could be interpreted as over-controlling or demotivating. Instead, they say the right things. They find the right words to make a connection with their kids—making them feel valued, heard, motivated, trusted, and involved.

But, here’s the great, little secret of motherhood: The superpower of all great motherhood communications is leadership. C’mon now! Yes, it’s absolutely true! Leadership, like motherhood, is all about connecting with other human beings, whether they are our kids or our coworkers.

So, in celebration of Mother’s Day, I give you a window into the world of a mom’s head—the true, honest, and less-than-good-mom-like thoughts we wish we could say and the actual pearls of comfort, inspiration, and leadership communication we daily communicate to our kids.

Scene 1: Elementary School

I’m sure this scene will be familiar to all parents. It was a busy Tuesday afternoon at the office, and in between meetings, I signed into the Dashboard system at the school to check my son Spencer’s grades. Elementary SchoolLike a bright interrogation spotlight, there was a gleaming 0 out of 25 for a social studies assignment.

Take 1, Action… I have a less-than-Supermom/Superleader voice in my head—let’s call her, Dr. Disparaging. Well, Dr. Disparaging spent all afternoon (and her commute home) building up momentum for her next steps. Of course, one temptation was to immediately email the teacher and inquire about how to make up the points. Thanks to Dr. Disparaging, another temptation was forming on my lips as well. I really wanted to say to Spencer, “Missing assignment? Don’t you know that when you get to high school this stuff counts!? Every point counts!”

Instead, I put the brain back in my head (after it mentally splattered all over the wall), and used some of the leadership skills I learned managing projects and teams at the office. I knew that I had let him take action to address this issue instead of me taking action. As absurd as it would be to watch, say, a World Cup coach dash onto the field and run for a goal himself, it would have been equally ludicrous for me (or any parent) to attempt to do my child’s work, whether in desperation or because an opportunity had presented itself to taste the thrill of victory. Dr. Disparaging didn’t care. But as parents, we have to take a risk and let our kids do their jobs as students. In leadership, we call this providing support without taking responsibility.

Take 2, Action… Instead of my blow-up, I coached Spencer on how to talk to his teacher. I led with questions to get him thinking and involved by saying, “When is the best time to bring this up to your teacher? What do you think she’s likely to say?” I’ve learned via my 25 years in the workforce that using involvement builds commitment to making a change or improvement.

Also, I knew during my discussion that it was critical to help Spencer understand what’s already going well. I said, “I saw you nailed the spelling test with a 10 out of 10! You are on a roll! I think the extra prep you are doing in that area is really paying off.”

Scene 2: Middle School

When my now 14-year-old son, Spencer, started moping around our house, I could tell it wasn’t just hormones. He was about to have final exams for the first time in his young life and the lead-up to the big week wasn’t going well. He kept retreating from my efforts to cheer him up or to help him prepare.

I tried everything. “Buddy, what’s going on?” Silence. “ What’s on your mind?” Silence.

Take 1, Action… Well, Dr. Disparaging stood ready with destructive zingers like, “Yeah, yeah. Life gets tough.” Or, “Buck-up, you’ll get through. “ And, misguided wisdom: “You can’t walk around moping. When you get older, if you do that at work you’ll be fired.”

Wait!!! What is Dr. Disparaging doing? Well, in essence she’s telling Spencer not to feel the way he’s truly feeling. She’s trying to remedy the problem as quickly as possible. And, this is a HUGE mom (and leadership) trap. Instead, Supermom needs to slow-down and use some empathy.

Take 2, Action…. “Buddy, what’s going on?” Silence. “What’s on your mind?” Silence.

Despite these failed attempts, and my growing impatience, I pressed on, asking, “What are you thinking?” More silence. “How can I help?“ This questioning was met with another prolonged silence followed, finally, by a monotone, “It’s crazy right now.”

Staked to this entry point, I encouraged him to tell me about it and he did. With his eyes cast downward and still moping, he mumbled about how he had all these back-to-back tests that he’d never had to take before. And he said, “Mom, I don’t know how to do all of this at once.”

Then I offered, “I think you’re scared and there’s a lot of pressure. You’ve never had finals before. Is that about it?”

Well, eureka! Breakthrough! His eyes then met mine, and he continued to open up, sharing that he felt overwhelmed and that others in his class seemed so much farther ahead of him.

My using empathy to acknowledge and label the feeling he was experiencing enabled him to open up and look at the problem more rationally. It also enabled the two of us to break the ice and move through to problem solving together.

Supermoms around the world know that when dealing with an emotional situation, empathy is the greatest super power. It immediately reduces the tension and temperature in the room. And until things calm down, nothing productive can occur.

The ability to listen and respond with empathy is a communication skill that can enhance both your workplace and personal discussions. It can help you learn how others are feeling and let them know you understand, even though you might not necessarily agree. It’s the key to open dialogue and effective conversation.

Scene 3: High School

It is a few days before my birthday (I won’t say which one) and Spencer is now a high school student. Middle SchoolHe says, “Mom, what are we doing for your birthday dinner?”

I jumped on this sweet offer and said, “We went out for your birthday dinner last month. Do you feel up to making your famous lamb burgers for a dinner at home?”

It was a great idea, but when it came to the day to cook, the heat was on—literally!

First, he had to run home from his tennis match and take a quick shower before dinner. We had invited his girlfriend and my brother, so he was rushing to make the burger recipe before everyone arrived. He grated the ginger, chopped the scallions, blended in the feta, garlic and spices, and lit the grill. At this point, my brother arrives and offered to help. Spencer said, “Thanks. Can you check the gill? Is it ready?”

What my brother soon discovered was that Spencer, in his haste, had lifted the grill cover back enough to reach the starter, but he hadn’t removed it. Yes, you guessed it! The heat was on and the grill cover had melted all over the grill! Yowza!

Take 1, Action… Dr. Disparaging stood ready to humble him by saying, “Dude, how could you be so stupid? What’s the purpose of lighting the grill? Yup, to heat it up! Use your brain! Isn’t it obvious that you need to take the cover off?”

But, instead Supermom recognized that this situation called for a course-correction. She didn’t want to create a situation (are you listening, Dr. Disparaging?) where Spencer walked away feeling worse about himself than he already did at this moment. Leaders know that diminishing someone by belittling them or making them feel that they are somehow personally insufficient for the job at hand can be hurtful and very difficult to bounce back from. And it’s unnecessary. Even in these difficult situations you can—and should, at a minimum—maintain the other person’s self-esteem.

Take 2, Action… Soon afterward, Spencer’s girlfriend arrived. Since we found the whole situation funny, both my brother and I made sure that she knew all about the grill cover episode. But, even though it was funny to us, it definitely wasn’t to Spencer. He bravely defended himself by saying, “Mom, why are you so mad?”

I then said, “Oh, hon, I’m not mad. I find it funny. I am sorry you’re at the epicenter of this ‘joke.’”

And, he said, “Well, you seem mad. I said I’m sorry.”

I sighed and replied, “Listen, we all make mistakes and I am sure you feel embarrassed. Let me ask you, will you ever, ever, ever not totally take the cover off before lighting again?”

He said, “No, I’ll never make that mistake again.”

And, I said, “Lesson learned!”

What do you remember most about your mother?

So, this Mother’s Day, I want to thank my mother, Carolyn Byham, the first leader in my life! She has modeled the way for me as a parent, and a leader. She’s my Supermom.
Tacy and her mom
As we reflect on our childhoods, it’s less about the advice we received from our parents than the way they made us feel. The way they reacted to the oh-so-challenging trials and tribulations of motherhood that we subjected them to every day. Most of the time, they used their super skills and made us feel great—bringing out the best in us every day. But, let’s face it, sometimes Dr. Disparaging would win.

But never fear, Supermom steps up to face another dawn, another challenge, and win!

Happy Mother’s Day to all Supermoms (and leaders) out there! I invite you to share your stories of what you said/wish you had said and tag me on twitter @TacyByham. I also invite you to pick up a copy of Your First Leadership Job for more stories on leadership and practical advice for leaders at all levels—moms and dads to CEOs.

Supermoms naturally embody what DDI teaches leaders to be every day—a catalyst leader. Catalyst leaders know that there is a core set of essential behaviors and skills that everyone must master to create conversations that build positive relationships while getting work done through others. They practice what we call the 5 Key Principles—esteem, empathy, involve, share, and support—that I’ve highlighted in the stories above. When you teach a leader these Key Principles the benefits spread far beyond the workforce to healthier family lives and communities.
Leadership Skills

Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI's Chief Executive Officer.

Posted: 25 Apr, 2016,
Talk to an Expert: Look Inside a Mom’s Head and You’ll Find a Leader
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