Life is full of opportunities to learn lessons about leadership, one only has to stop long enough to reflect and seek them out. Periodically I actually practice what I preach and did just that. While prepping for a development session with a small team of professionals I intended to ask them to identify one or two significant things that they learned from a parent, sibling or spouse that in turn has shaped them personally and professionally. As a habit I like to think through the answers to my own questions prior to using them just in case I feel that my participation might spur others that are hesitant to answer. While I have thought about similar questions many times something was different this time. It might have been that I had a few fingers of single malt on board, but something clicked this time as I sat back and thought through my childhood and to my parents.
While I have looked back at traits, habits and beliefs that I inherited from or might have been influenced by my parents, I don’t believe that I have ever really sat back and looked deeply for what I admired about my parents. This particular night I did. Even though I am equally my mom’s son as I am my dad’s son (in terms of who I am and how I am) I chose to focus on my mom as we have always had a special relationship. As I looked back through the pain that we both caused each other as she was a young mother of a teenager I realized something that she imbedded a hugely significant trait that is central to the person, parent, spouse, coach, consultant and friend that I have become. To understand the power of that gift I need to first set up the story.
My mom was the oldest of three and for the most part helped raise her younger siblings (the maternal thing started early for her). She married my dad when she was 18 and fresh out of high school. My dad was a graduating college senior and an only child extremely close to his parents. My parents lived a stereotypical “Leave it to Beaver” life for many years. My mom was extremely active in the schools as I grew up. She was not only the PTA president, but was also the executive assistant to the superintendent. Thinking back to those times I think she did both of those to ensure that I stayed out of trouble or so that she had more leverage when I did get in trouble (I did that a lot it seems). About the time I turned 13 my (our) whole world turned upside down when my dad called a family meeting with me and my sisters to tell us that he was moving out for a while. While I vividly remember the shock, pain and anger I felt in that moment I even more vividly remember the look on my mom’s face as she stood in the doorway behind my sisters. What I saw was something that I have felt many times in my life, fear. I am sure she had already gone through some of the emotions that I had in the moment, but through the pain that I am sure was there, I saw fear. For 16 years she had been a mother, one-half of a partnership, not a single parent. She had been with the same person in that partnership raising a boy full of hormones and two young daughters. She was terrified. The interesting thing about that day is that while I saw my mom cry numerous times over the coming year or two I can’t remember ever seeing that look of fear again. I say that because what I remember most about my mom during that time was her determination to not miss a beat, nor allow us to miss one. I remember her still finding a way to be involved in our school activities while also moving into a higher level role working for a national organization. I saw my mom grow into the woman that she was destined to be. I saw my mom get knocked down and get back up. I saw someone who refused to allow fear to make her a victim, I saw a woman turn fear into the fuel she used to do what was needed to take care of her family.
The lesson in my mom’s experience, my story, is that fear is natural and the easy choice that follows allows us to legitimize our status as a victim. The right choice however, and the hardest choice, is to push through in spite of our fear. When I look back at my adult life I can see where that same learned trait has propelled me to who I am today personally and professionally. Just like my mom, I too have been knocked down and just like my mom, without thinking about it I got back up and went back at it. That dogged determination to not fail (can’t fail unless you stop trying) and courage are what I think connect me and my mom, and likely what gets in our way at times!
I am quite sure there are a million other personal stories where a parent has overcome even more significant challenges and while they are inspirational for many of us I’d challenge everyone to stop and think about the lesson in those stories that you are now living out. That, in my opinion, is where our legacies are truly found!