13 May 2021 22:40 IST

Why your mother is always right

Moms are natural leaders; always a unifying force and adept at handling volatility

As I write this, Mother’s Day has just passed, and the flood of Mother’s Day cards, wishes, and posts has slowed to a trickle. The truth is that the first real leader almost all of us encounter in our lives is our own mother. Since leadership is often cloaked in titles like CEO or Chairman or similar sounding labels from a male world, we often lose sight of the valuable leadership lessons we have or should have learnt from our mothers.

On a side note — it was interesting to see the debate in France, on the most argued on letter in the French language — ‘e’. ‘E’ is the language’s feminine letter often used in feminine nouns and their adjectives. But it has also recently been wielded by feminists to ensure that traditional words that implied ‘male’ could be given a more gender-neutral and sometimes even feminine meaning. One word that came up in much of the reporting on this news item, was the French generic word for leaders —— dirigeants. This is of course the masculine spelling of the word and implies that leaders are male. The more gender-equal spelling should be dirigeant.es with the extra ‘e’ making clear that leaders could be of both sexes. A worthwhile fight to have in my opinion, in a world that still subconsciously assumes leadership as male. A step away from that thinking, is to look at the first leaders in our lives — our mothers and the leadership lessons we can learn from them.

A unifying force

I’ve often faced the question of whether Hitler was a ‘leader’ — and my answer has always been no. Because he fails on what is one of the differentiators for a real leader — somebody who unites rather than divides. Mothers do this constantly at home. They make peace between siblings; they make peace between the father and children. They go to great lengths to explain, to ask questions, to understand — all with the goal to unify. The family comes first — so they nudge, cajole, sometimes bully individual family members into ensuring the big-picture-unity takes precedence over individual priorities and sensibilities.

I remember my own mother who often had to play policewoman, jury, and judge when the four of us boys had our inevitable quarrels. The lesson was clear — whoever did whatever, it had to end with shaking hands and making up. The rule was simple — don’t let the sun go down on your anger. At school, if one brother faced any bullying it was a matter of time before one of the other three would show up and get the bully to back off.

This ability to unify is extremely important for a leader. The ability to get the whole team engaged and committed around the greater good, sometimes even at the cost of their own personal ambitions. A leader who plays one group against another, who nurtures a me-first culture is playing politics not leadership. Often leaders play groups against each other because they are insecure human beings and are therefore deeply handicapped in playing the role of unifier.

Everyone in the home trusts the mother as the unifier because her credibility is the highest — she is authentic, she sacrifices her own desires, and her love is unconditional. If a leader has to play unifier, she too has to go beyond personal-agendas and have a credibility that comes from walking-the-talk.

Mothers also excel at the role of unifier because they are great listeners. They listen to what is said and what is unsaid. They listen to the tone, the undertone, the overtone. They watch the shrug, the smirk, the eye roll. And they take immediate action. Right after dinner, the offending party will be yanked to the kitchen and given the what-was-that-all-about speech. Mothers would have made great Gestapo interrogators — and without all the pliers and electric shocks! They somehow have a way of getting things out. And again, all with the intention of solving problems, healing wounds and unifying. If only leaders learnt to listen like mothers do!

VUCA-ready

I often speak of mothers as being natural PhDs in VUCA. They are adept at handling the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that comes from running a family — maybe on a small scale but they know the characters in the VUCA play very well. At an event some months ago, the TV talk show personality and senior banking professional leader, Bharathy Bhaskar regaled us with stories of the resourcefulness of mothers. The son would say — "I’m bringing two or three friends home" — instead fifteen land up. With a calm and composure that business leaders would do well to emulate, mother would be in the kitchen somehow ensuring that snacks planned for a party of four now miraculously would go around for a party of sixteen. Even when the reverse happens — snacks and meals are prepared for the expected group of ten but only two trot in. No food goes waste — somehow over the coming week the family would receive various combinations of the same dishes without anyone noticing anything amiss!

Leaders would do well to learn from mothers that when things go wrong, when change hits, when an unpredictable event throws long-prepared plans off the rails — it is a time not to whine about it — but to step forward and deal with the changes. It is a time to do what needs doing. Mothers excel at that.

Leading by example

Instinctively, mothers go last on everything. They eat last — after ensuring that everyone else has got their fair share, they sleep last after ensuring that everyone is tucked in. They lead by example. If they ask a sacrifice, they’ve already given ten times as much. If they demand a standard of behaviour, it’s because they have far exceeded it. Mothers teach us that leaders must lead — not by saying, but by doing.

I remember when the family shifted mid-academic year from Chennai to Hyderabad — my brothers and I were quite perturbed at having to catch up on a few months of learning and notes and at short notice write the quarterly exams and study Telugu on top of Hindi! But that first week, Mum was at school, sitting in the staff room and copying the notes for all the subjects, for all of us — so that we were up to speed and could get cracking on studying for the exams. In the face of that kind of an example you just had to quit whining and get moving.

I’ve had the luxury of being twice blessed in this department. I’ve seen leadership at work in my mother and learnt so much of what I practice from her. Now I see my wife playing that role in the family and I watch and learn as she unifies, handles VUCA googlies with practised ease, and leads by example.

So, leaders do take those expensive B-school courses alright — but otherwise just be smart and remember what your Mom taught you, what you as a Mom practice at home and if you’re a male-leader, what your wife is teaching you in her role as Mom. “What would Mom do?” could soon be a B-school subject!