By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
As the day set aside for us to honor our mothers is fast approaching, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about lessons on leadership that I learned from my mother and grandmothers. I am fortunate to still have my mother with me and had both grandmothers into my adulthood, so the lessons are many. I suspect all of you could recall lessons from the matriarchs in your family that are just as valuable, but here are mine.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words. None of the women from my youth who helped shape who I am today were much for public speaking. They seldom made public presentations (except maybe at church) or made grand proclamations. However, that does not mean they did not teach me and others – they taught by example. They did not tell me to be compassionate, they showed compassion. They did not tell me do my best, they did their best. They did not tell me to work hard, the worked hard. If leaders want others to act with integrity, they must act with integrity. If they expect their members to make thoughtful decisions, they need to make thoughtful decisions. Lead by example.
You Don’t Have to Have a Title to Be a Leader. I recognize that SLLF works with people who hold official positions of leadership. However, that position or title does not make these people leaders – it is the impact that they have on others that does that. Neither my mother nor grandmothers ever held public office or even high positions in religious or civic organizations. They quietly, but significantly, impacted the lives of their children, grandchildren and many people they came in contact with every day. Today’s leaders must realize their leadership comes not from a title, but from the things they do, big and small, to positively impact the lives of others.
“Book Learnin’” Matters, But So Do Passion and Hard Work. If you notice the Ph.D. beside my name above, that is a tribute to the encouragement of my mother and grandmothers. My father’s mother was one of the first Special Education teachers in North Carolina, and my mother was an elementary teacher and teacher’s aide for more than a decade, so formal education was important to them. However, they all taught me that education alone was not enough – to get things done, you have to believe in what you are doing and work hard to make things happen. True leaders are not swayed by every political wind that blows. They are committed to doing what is right and best for those whom they serve, and are willing to put in the hard work it takes to pass and implement good policy.
Find, Recognize and Encourage the Good in Others. On my father’s side, I have twenty-four first cousins, so my paternal grandmother had 25 grandchildren! And yet, (and I think all of my cousins would attest to this) she managed to make each of us feel special and unique. (My mother and other grandmother did as well, but with two children and four grandchildren respectively, their task was a bit easier.) By identifying, recognizing and encouraging what was special about each of us, she made us better people – we believed in ourselves because she believed in us. Great leaders identify, honor and encourage great qualities in those they lead. They provide them with the tools and opportunities to achieve great things. Great leaders develop other leaders to come behind them.
You Can Achieve A Lot if You Don’t Care Who Gets the Credit. My grandmothers were each married to my grandfathers for more than sixty years and my mother has been married to my father for almost as long. One of my grandmothers once told me that the key to a good marriage was “getting your papa to do what I want and letting him think it was his idea!” Sounds like pretty good leadership advice as well – a good leader does not mind letting someone else think the good policy was his or her idea and even getting the credit for it, as long as the good policy is passed.
People Don’t Care How Much You Know, Until They Know How Much You Care. My mother and grandmothers would tell people how much they cared for them, but more importantly, they would show them. Whether it was through their churches where they taught classes, cared for children or prepared meals for the sick, or through civic organizations where they distributed food to the needy, expanded our city parks or raised money for the volunteer fire department, these women made it clear they cared. In a world where many voters have lost faith in public service (and public servants), voters really care less about what you know than about how much you care. Show them you care by passing policies that solve problems and make their lives better.
Everybody is Important. Both of my grandmothers were involved in teaching children and adults with developmental disabilities. While my father’s mother had a teaching degree, she had no formal training in special education because there was none to be had at the time. My maternal grandmother had no formal teachers training at all. However, both had a firm and deeply held belief that everyone, including those with developmental challenges, mattered and deserved to be taught and treated with dignity. In a political world where we all too often choose sides and suggest that this group is more important than that group or that these people are significant, but these people are not, true leaders recognize the value of everyone, not just those with money, position or influence (or affiliated with one party or the other) and reach out to them.
I am sure these wonderful women taught me much more (including how to cook, how to hit a baseball and how to pick and string a lot of green beans), but I think this will do for now. Happy Mother’s Day!