Lessons in Leadership From Motherhood

6 min read
Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

When I became a mother, many conversations with friends, coworkers, and students quickly began incorporating the challenges of balancing work and home. These discussions are crucial because juggling a busy home life and a demanding career is exceedingly challenging.

However, in discussing these struggles, I noticed that many mothers are doubtful about their ability to succeed both at work and at home, a sentiment I’ve experienced many times myself. Like many, I wondered, “Can I succeed as a mom and a leader? Can I overcome the ‘mommy track’ and conquer the ‘motherhood penalty’?”

To start addressing this question, I’ve discovered that the research on work-family enrichment provides a refreshing perspective. This research reveals that motherhood can be an incredible source of personal growth and enjoyment, not only in one’s personal life but also in their professional life.

Consider Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice, who provides a great example of how being a mother can enhance, rather than detract from, one’s success at work. She did not see raising a baby during her law studies as an impediment to her success; instead, she considered it a contributing factor to her accomplishments.

She explained, “I felt that each part of my life gave me respite from the other.” In her view, being a mother replenished her energy for her studies, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, once I started looking for signs of work-family enrichment in my own life, I realized that becoming a mother gave me a crash course in several things that made me better at my job, ranging from a new perspective on life to acquiring unique skills. As a mother to a 3-year-old and a leadership professor, here are three of my favorite leadership lessons that come from parenting:

1. The Most Generous Interpretation:

In her bestselling book Good Inside, child psychologist Becky Kennedy explores the advantages of adopting the “most generous interpretation” when dealing with your child’s behavior that you find unfavorable. For instance, imagine a scenario where your child throws a tantrum because they can’t have a new toy.

Your initial reaction might be anger, or you might even assume your child is spoiled or ungrateful. However, the most generous interpretation of the tantrum could be that your child is inherently good but is struggling because things aren’t going their way.

The remarkable aspect of this perspective is that responding to your child based on this viewpoint, instead of reacting with anger or frustration, often results in improved behavior over time. Your most generous interpretation can shape their reality.

While different terms, such as “the ladder of inference” or “appreciative inquiry,” are often used in business schools, they similarly allude to the importance of approaching others with an openness to the most generous interpretation available.

Consider the manager who abruptly ends a meeting after you pose a challenging question, or think about the employee who sends an unprofessional email without fully considering its implications. Understanding these behaviors with your most generous interpretation can help you approach the problem with curiosity rather than accusation, question your initial assumptions, and work toward a solution rather than merely assigning blame.

This approach to constructive dialogue can ultimately foster a safer and more productive work environment.

2. Asking “Why” Repeatedly:

Any toddler parent can confirm that the barrage of “whys” can feel never-ending.

  • “Why can’t I have a lollipop for dinner?”
  • “Why doesn’t the sunshine at night?”
  • “Why is that flower pink?”

However, this stage of innate curiosity is regrettably short-lived. Somewhere along the way, typically around 7, children tend to stop asking “why.” Unfortunately, this tendency carries into adulthood, with few employees feeling psychologically safe enough to ask “why” at work due to concerns about appearing foolish or being labeled troublemakers.

Yet, research underscores the importance of curiosity for individuals and organizations alike.

Consider the “5 Whys” framework, which toddlers instinctively employ but was formalized as an analysis technique by the Toyota Production System. The “5 Whys” framework has been widely utilized as a root cause analysis technique, featuring the simple yet potent approach of repeatedly asking the question “why” five times to delve deep into the root cause of a specific issue.

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When a problem emerges, whether it’s a production error, a process breakdown, or a communication mishap, the “5 Whys” approach can be used to pinpoint the underlying reasons for the problem rather than merely addressing surface-level symptoms.

Discovering the “5 Whys” framework gave me a newfound appreciation for my daughter’s ceaseless questioning, reminding me of the power of asking why. Likewise, her inquisitiveness serves as a continual reminder of the significance of curiosity, a trait that I endeavor to bring with me into my daily work.

3. The Importance of Transitions:

Transitions, which refer to the moments when individuals switch from one activity to another, often present a significant challenge for toddlers. Kristin Gallant and Deena Margolin, the parenting experts behind Big Little Feelings, encourage parents to more easily facilitate these transitions by clearly communicating the plan for the transition, including all the relevant details.

For a 3-year-old, this might involve saying, “After you finish your dinner, we are going to take a bath and then read two books that you can choose from the bookshelf.” The clarity in the transition process and establishing a routine sometimes eliminates uncertainty and helps young minds feel more at ease.

Before becoming a parent, I hadn’t fully grasped the importance of transitions. However, now, I can’t help but notice, both in my personal experience and in research, just how essential managing transitions is for adults as well. Gallant and Margolin of “Big Little Feelings” emphasize that proactively managing transitions can help reduce the likelihood of tantrums in children. This same principle applies to adults, where proactive transition management can decrease the chances of stress and frustration.

Consider, for instance, the transition from work to home at the end of the day. Researchers have highlighted the importance of having a strategy to mentally detach from work, which is crucial for recharging. A well-established transition ritual can be a valuable tool in this process.

One practical technique that many find beneficial is to perform a final “brain dump” before leaving their workspace at the end of the day to revisit the contents of this “brain dump” to determine the starting point for the next workday. This proactive approach ensures a smoother transition, reducing the likelihood of work-related thoughts intruding on personal time.

As we navigate the intricate balance between our professional and personal lives, it’s evident that motherhood offers not just challenges but also abundant opportunities for personal growth. From the inspiring example set by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the practical wisdom of child psychologists, this journey is a pathway to enrichment and understanding.

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