My mom was an elementary school teacher for 27 years. She taught Kindergarten, First, Second, and Third Grade. Depending on the time of year and current lesson plan, she would transform her classroom into an ocean, a rainforest, or an elegantly set dining room for high tea, for a Mother’s Day Tea Party – complete with antique tea cups, table cloths, and dishes. This was of course, to teach her students about the ocean, rainforest, and proper dinner table etiquette, respectfully; all while covering the basics of reading, writing, adding, and subtracting.
My mom didn’t just teach. She created environments primed for self-motivation, inspiration, and learning among her students.
She once told me her goal in teaching these young people, was to simply create shelf space. This meant planting small “idea seeds” into the hearts and minds of those in her classroom for which they’d have a “shelf” to build upon down the road. The shelf space would give way to lessons, learnings, and knowledge her students would use for the rest of their lives.
I’m lucky to have been one of those students. Here are three leadership lessons I learned from my Mom:
Make it about them
Every single day my Mom arrived well before any other teacher in the school. She often stayed later than most other faculty and staff. Of course, she’d get tired, and sure, she endured everyday frustrations, as with any profession. However, the one thing which kept her as positive as the day she started on the job was her mindset. She made it all about them. Her students’ thoughts, feelings, and even their lives outside of school remained her focus from mid-August through the following June, for 27 years. My Mom made her entire lesson-plan, daily plan, weekly plan, and annual plan, all about her students.
So, from the time I started my career in business, leading other people was inspired by my mom’s advice. My mom’s first piece of advice was and still is, make it all about them. Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the leader inspiring the hearts and minds of those around them. When I get down, frustrated, or overwhelmed, I simply remember how my mom made it all about her students. As a leader, it’s amazing what happens when we shift from focusing on ourselves to focusing on them.
Look at the big picture
When I was in middle school and high school, I began mastering the art of worrying. I became really good at it! My Mom would, of course, notice my anxiety about an upcoming test, a ballgame, a rough practice, and even the trials and tribulations of “growing up”. Whether it was losing a basketball game, getting a bad grade on a math test, or getting dumped my girlfriend, my Mom would always share with me how her students – the children six, seven, and eight years old – had learned to cope.
My mom taught her students to deal with their own anxiety and nerves by simply looking at the big picture. For every happenstance in life, my Mom would teach her students, “It could always be worse.” In other words, when we take a quick timeout and inventory the positives vs. the negatives, in any situation or circumstance, if we’re still breathing, upright, and capable of being productive, we’ll usually realize everything will be just fine.
As a leader goes, so goes the team. Great leaders are those who maintain composure and a level head through the inevitable ups and downs organizations face. I’m still awesome at worrying. It’s a skill I’ve more than mastered. However, thankfully I have a few mental shelves my Mom created earlier in my life upon which I’ve stored burden after burden. When anxiety, frustration, sadness, or even disappointment creep in, I simply tell myself, “It could always be worse.” That usually brings my mood back to a positive place pretty quickly!
Keep being you
Remember learning to read? What about the first few exercises in adding and subtracting? Or what about writing? Perhaps these were the first moments in our lives when we began to fall short of expectations. Not all the time, but certainly some of the time in our early days, learning how to read, write, add, and subtract, we’d get down on ourselves. If and when homework or classwork stumped us, we’d begin to doubt our abilities.
My Mom 180’d self-doubt in six, seven, and eight-year-olds quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. She was an artist in the way she’d remind students how far they’d come as a way to inspire them to march forward, believing in themselves as opposed to the alternative. She’d often point out their uniqueness, strengths, and natural abilities, always finishing the coaching session with, “Keep being you…”.
Her students’ eyes would light up, and their frowns would transform into smiles right before her very eyes. Then she’d tell them to, “Go find your seat, and get with it.” Just like scenes from a movie, time and time again, when her students regained their self-confidence, they mastered classwork and retained the valuable lessons.
Perhaps this is my favorite leadership lesson from my Mom. As a leader, there’s no more important task than making sure those on our teams feel significant. When they feel significant, they lean into their natural abilities, strengths, and capabilities and simply become the absolute best they can be, with confidence every step of the way.
That’s our job as leaders, to create environments in which people thrive, becoming their very best.
So, from a small town in Eastern Kentucky, from First, Second, and Third Grade classrooms, and all the way from my childhood living room, follow these three leadership lessons and create environments rich in self-motivation, inspiration, and learning for your teams:
Make it about them…
Look at the big picture…
Keep being you…
Thank you, Mom, for teaching me how to lead.
Thanks to all the moms for doing what you do, the way in which you do it, and showing us what it means to be a leader.
Happy Mother’s Day.