Seven Leadership Lessons I Learned from my Mom (A Mother’s Day Tribute)

This week we celebrated mothers. On Sunday, Mother’s from all over the country received well-deserved cards, flowers, candy, and a myriad of gifts to say “Thank You” for the tireless investments that they make in their children. If you’re a mom, I too salute you. And, I could think of few better ways to honor my mom than to reflect on the 7 leadership lessons I learned from my mom, Dorothy Penn Arnold. Happy Mother’s Day, mom!

First, let me be clear. I can never fully understand the breadth and depth of a mother’s love. I’m not sure any man can fully appreciate that. I feel that my mother loves me deeply. And, it reinforces the idea that a mother’s love is relational—as contrasted with a father’s love which tends to be more functional.

In other words, mother’s relational love prioritizes connecting through feelings. Father’s functional love prioritizes connecting through transactions (aka “activities”). Now, this isn’t to say that mother’s don’t show functional love or that father’s don’t demonstrate relational love. But, it speaks to the points of emphasis. And, these emphatic differences are important because together they can provide children with a well-rounded framework for becoming the leader’s that we are destined to be.

Here are three ways that I believe mothers show us relational love:

  • They care for our feelings
  • They strive to be physically and emotionally present  (especially when their children are struggling)
  • They have that intuition with their children (a “sixth sense” connecting them to their children’s often unspoken needs and aspirations)

I know that there are some whose relationship with their mom has been (or maybe continues to be) strained. Maybe you never did feel loved. We know there are many who were neglected or suffered egregious abuse at the hands of their mothers. The pain from that trauma can often last a lifetime.

Now, let me keep it real. The reality for me is that I did not feel loved by my mother during my childhood and youth. In fact, for many years during my childhood, I thought my mother disliked me. As the eldest of three biological children and the only male (we hadn’t yet adopted my brothers) I felt that she was very unfair and hypercritical towards me. I nearly always felt that I (and my sisters to a lesser extent) were the victims of my mom’s frustration with my dad. So, she and I were constantly at odds. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so that I could escape to college—though admittedly leaving behind my sisters and my grandmother was going to be tough for me.

I have intentionally talked here about how I “felt”. Just because I didn’t “feel” loved in no way suggests that my mother didn’t love me. In retrospect, I’m absolutely positive that she did. And, the distance away from her helped me see it more objectively.

But, it wasn’t until a number of years later as I did graduate studies in Marriage and Family Therapy that I believe I truly healed emotionally from the years of “battling” with my mom. It happened as I studied and internalized a concept that in psychology is called “Fundamental Attribution Error”.

The basic idea of Fundamental Attribution Error is that people engage in both positive and negative behaviors. When we see someone else behave negatively, we attribute that to their character. In other words, something is wrong with them. On the other hand, when we personally behave negatively, we blame it on our circumstances. For example, I only lied because of the situation I was put in. I see myself as a good person who was caught in a bad situation.

As I understood this concept, I stopped blaming my mom for my hurt feelings during my young years. My mom was herself struggling emotionally with what she saw as a difficult situation. The more I’ve been able contextualize these experiences from my childhood and youth the better I’ve been able to gain perspective on all the ways that my mom helped me become the leader that I am today.

If you have a strained relationship with your mom consider how her circumstances may be partially if not totally responsible for the difficult situation that you found yourself in. For some, this may create some room for true forgiveness and healing to take place.

What I know is that many of the things that I experienced and felt as punitive were actually shaping something in me that I would only understand years later. Much of my effectiveness today is directly proportional to my mom’s influence.

My dad has been influential too. But, maybe I’ll save those lessons for Father’s Day.

So, with that here are the seven leadership lessons that my mother cultivated in me.

Seven Leadership Lessons That My Mom Taught Me

Lesson #1: Prioritize Education

Academic achievement was always a priority for my mom. She expected me to perform well. And, she let me know it at every level.

Actually some of the moments when I felt closest to my mom during my early years was when I reached some academic goal.  Without a doubt my mom has been there to support me at every academic milestone from high school, undergraduate school, and four graduate degrees.  She prioritized education and as a result so did I.

Even more remarkable is her own journey to complete her undergraduate degree in her later years in life that had been halted in her young adulthood.

I wish more parents (especially African American ones) would prioritize education for their children. Be proactive to engage their teachers when necessary. Keep a watchful eye on their academic progress.

Create the expectation that your child will be an educated person. It is unacceptable that in some urban environments (such as Philadelphia where I live) has a high school graduation rate is only 66%.

To be a leader is to be educated. My mom taught me that.

Lesson #2: Be the Best

My mother pushes and pushes and pushes. She always pushed me to strive to be numero uno — especially when it came to academics.

If I got a B, she asked why it wasn’t an A.

If I got third in a public speaking contest, she wanted to understand why I didn’t win it.

If she sensed that I didn’t put out my 100% best effort, she wasn’t pleased.  For my mom “good enough” is not good enough.

My mom taught me to pursue excellence at whatever I do. Don’t cut corners. Now, this attitude is wired into my fabric.

To be a leader is to be your best self. My mom taught me that.

Lesson #3: Don’t settle to follow when you’re born to lead

My mother has always thought of me as a leader. Maybe she didn’t articulate it that way. But, she has always pushed me out front—often against my wishes as a youth.

She saw talents for leadership in me before I saw them in myself. She sometimes chastised me for deferring to others what I could have taken charge of myself. I thought she was overbearing. But, she sensed something more.

Good leaders know when to follow and when to lead. My mom taught me that.

Lesson #4: Pay Attention to Detail and Discipline

My mom is a detail-oriented person. She masters and finds comfort in the details. Whether it is making sure that the bed is properly made, coordinating colors, or packing a truck, she has an eye for detail.

She is observant and takes in her surroundings. She will see things that many won’t pick up on.

Yes, my sisters and I still think she has just a little obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But, there is no question that organization and structure create a comfort zone for her.

During my years at home, her seemingly constant scrutiny felt strangling. It was only after I encountered many kids struggling in college with order and time management that I appreciated the discipline my mother instilled.

Now, this structure and discipline are fundamental to my success in accomplishing my passions. With limited time to devote to my passions given my work schedule, it is my discipline and attention to detail that allow me to meet my objectives.

The best leaders are disciplined to observe and act on the details that others miss. My mom taught me that.

Lesson #5: Be Financially Astute

My mom is thrifty (to say the least). She always has been. She epitomizes the idea of “pinching a penny”.

Much of my parent’s struggle with one another is due to their drastically divergent views on financial management.

From an early age, my mom tried to get me to be a saver—like her. I didn’t want to be a saver. I wanted to spend, spend, spend. I felt like I should be able to do what I wanted with the little bit of money that I earned. And, I really do mean “little bit”.

Though I resisted much of her efforts during my childhood, I came to appreciate the value of having a balanced view of money. Saving is important. But, so is spending (when done in moderation). I eventually valued the idea of not spending more than you make. Put money aside for the proverbial “rainy day”. But, also control your money. Don’t let it control you.

Many leaders have fallen because of financial indiscretion or neglect.

Exceptional leaders are financially astute individuals who either possess the skills themselves or ensure that they align with others with requisite financial acumen.

In her own way, my mom’s actions taught me that.

Lesson #6: Don’t Try to be like Everyone Else

My mom wanted me to be comfortable in my own skin. While most kids just want to fit in, my mom wanted me to be “special”. Because of my family’s conservative Christian tradition there were many things that my peers participated in that I was unable to do.

School dances? Nope.

Parties? Nope.

High school football? Nope.

Senior Prom? Nope. (actually this one was more about my dad’s sentiment)

I could go on. The bottom line is that I had to become comfortable being different. I had to try and figure out how to fit in without  actually being able to do many of the things that others did to fit in. It was tough. In some ways, I never did figure it out during my youth.

Ultimately, however, I accepted the idea that I won’t be like everyone else. I will chart my own course. And, that is something that every leader must decide.

Great leaders are usually mavericks. They are willing to buck against the status quo to be transformational figures. My mom taught me that.

Lesson #7: Have Tough Skin

Due to much of the conflict between my parents, their home was often not a warm place during my early years. It usually did not feel emotionally safe.

Emotional survival required having tough skin. Each of us had to learn and adapt our own means of surviving the criticism, the rules, and the arguments. Otherwise, you would just sulk in a corner.

I developed tough skin—maybe too tough. It wasn’t until I married that I realized that maybe my Teflon exterior needed some major softening efforts.

But, my early life experience has given me the strength to withstand criticism. I am a psychologically and emotionally strong person that is not easily deterred. I do not govern my behavior based on how I think others want me to act.

I’m proud of that.

Great leaders must often withstand and thrive under a barrage of criticism and scrutiny.  My mom taught me that.

So those are the seven lessons. The message here is that a mother’s relational love is not always dispensed as “peaches and creme”. Sometimes, it feels sharp and painful. Often times it is cloaked in fears and insecurities.

It is refreshing and healing to understand and accept that most mother’s desire is to intimately connect with their children even if the execution is sometimes flawed.

This should be comforting. Because all of us have flawed executions sometimes. We too are imperfect in our relationships and in our own parenting.

I love and honor my mother because she has always sought to push me towards greatness—towards leadership. However, it is her imperfections that have truly tooled me to achieve it.

Thank you mom for all that you do. I love you very much. You are my rock! I wouldn’t trade any of it.

How about you? How has your mom impacted your ability to lead? Leave a comment and let me know.