Remembering the Basics – What I learned from My Mother

In the wake of Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about some of the things my mother taught me. I’m thinking too that while these are very basic things, they are integral to good leadership and if we forget them well, let’s just say it’s not a good thing.

So, here are a few of my basics, along with the stories that made them important to me:

  • Don’t take other people’s stuff.  If, in a moment of madness, you do, give it back. Then apologize.

My mother taught me this lesson when I was four.  I came home one day from school with a brown paper bag that contained some odd bits of chalk and pencil ends.  I showed them to my mother and she said, “Where did you get those?”

I said, “Oh they were just in the classroom.  Nobody wants them”

“How do you know?” She said,  “Did you ask Mrs Munsey if you could have them?”

I said, “No, but no one wants them. So I just thought…”

It was then that my Mother, put her shoes on and marched me right back to school so that I could tell Mrs Munsey I had taken something that didn’t belong to me.

While I don’t remember the actual exchange of words, I know that I was appropriately contrite.  I know too that Mrs Munsey, (although secretly amused, I’m told) forgave me and asked me not to do it again.  And I didn’t.

In leadership, taking things that don’t belong to us includes taking advantage of others who are less powerful; taking ideas from others and passing them off as our own and; taking credit for work that we have not done.  This sort of thing is pretty basic in itself and well, just wrong.

  • Treat people with respect no matter who they are or how much they may tick you off. If you don’t, it will come back to bite you.

I think I was about eleven when, on a particular day, I was playing outside and making more noise than I ought, and our neighbour came out of her house to admonish me.  I responded with a shameful combination of cowardice and rudeness by staring at the ground while she was talking to me and then making a face and sticking out my tongue as soon as she went back in.  Unfortunately for me, she caught sight of me from her window and complained to my mother.

Without delay, Mom whisked me over to the neighbour’s house practically by the scruff of my neck; rang the doorbell and said, “Mrs Maidment, I think Gwyneth has something to say to you”

With a little prompting, I managed to apologize to Mrs Maidment for my rude behaviour and to tell her that I would be more respectful in future.  Then I cried.  And Mrs Maidment gave me a hug and forgave me.  (Hey, I may have been rude but I was still cute.)

In leadership, respect is a big deal.  Leaders earn respect by giving it.  I think perhaps good manners are a part of that, along with a myriad of other behaviours that demonstrate not only respect but also an acknowledgement that everyone has something of value to contribute

If we choose to stick out our tongues (metaphorically speaking) simply because we are the boss and feel entitled, chances are there will be a lot of tongues pointing in our direction as soon as we turn around. You can pretty much bet on that one.

  • If you think you can do it all by yourself, you might end up down a hole

When I was about three, I was just awakening to my independence.  I didn’t want anyone to help me with anything.

We lived in England then in a small terraced house and while it did indeed have indoor plumbing, the toilet, for some reason, was ensconced in a shed outside.  It wasn’t an outhouse per se because I remember that it had a water tank high up on the wall and a chain to pull when you wanted to flush.  Nonetheless, to me, it was a bit like Everest, a frontier to explore and a mountain to climb.

One day, I made the grand announcement that I was going to the toilet.  My mother said, “Do you need some help?”

I said, “No, I can do it myself”

“Are you sure?” She said

“Yes, I’m a big girl now.  I don’t need any help”

“All right then, off you go”

And so I did.  It should be said that I was quite small for my age and so the toilet that was Everest seemed to loom large with a cold porcelain stare that intimidated the life out of me.  But I had said I could do it myself and so I was not about to back down now.

Of course, in my excitement and my zeal to declare my emancipation from my mother’s constant protection, I forgot to put the toilet seat down.  As a result, I inadvertently sat on the porcelain ring and unceremoniously slipped down into the bowl and the cold water that awaited me there.

There was nothing to do but to call for help.  And when it came in the shape of my alarmed and then amused, mother all that could be seen of me from the entrance of the privy were the soles of my feet and eight tiny fingers clinging desperately to the sides of the toilet bowl.

I suffered no ill effects from this experience except perhaps to say that since then, my attraction to toilet humour has been embarrassingly acute at times.

In leadership, there are bosses who believe that doing everything themselves is the only way to get things done properly.  They fail to see that those who work with them have value to bring. And they fail to ask for help when they need it. This leaves others in the unenviable position of being order takers.  And there is no spirit in that.

So what’s the bottom line here?  Well, I think it’s this.

In the face of complexity, crises, and corporate greed, sometimes it helps to remember the basic lessons of life, things that our mothers (and fathers) taught us.  You know the ones.  Be honest.  Be brave. Be kind. Be respectful.

And I’m thinking that these are the things that built trust long before exercises in teambuilding ever did.

What do you think?  What are your basics?  Have you a story to share?  I’d love to hear it.



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, motivating & Inspiring

6 responses to “Remembering the Basics – What I learned from My Mother

  1. Hi Gwyn,

    Thanks for sharing these great stories about your mother and you. I think they do an excellent job demonstrating how mothers really have helped to foster in us an understanding of what leadership really means and of the importance of putting others before yourself.

    Your piece serves to remind us that we need to bring our whole self to work and not just the purely factual, rational side, if we are to be effective in our roles to lead or be led.

    I have to admit it was a pleasant surprise to see you sharing insights on leadership because of Mother’s Day as I also posted a piece today about the lessons we’ve learned about leadership from our mothers titled “Mothers – Our First Example of Real Leadership“. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Tanveer,

      Thanks for coming by and for your generous comments. I particularly like your reference to bringing your whole self to work. It is a dream of mine that more and more people see the wisdom and opportunity to do this until we can stop talking about work as a necessary evil and instead, talk about life as a seamless series of interesting events and challenges.

  2. Hi Gwyn,
    What a great post! Clearly your mother set the stage for success. In fact, I think most of the lessons that translate into desirable leadership traits come to us in our formative years.

    Landon Creasy

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Landon,

      Thanks for your kind comment. And I agree, our leadership potential is deeply influenced by those early lessons..both the good ones and probably the not so good ones as well.

  3. Leslie

    I love how you tied good advice for the workplace to lessons we learn as children. Or, should learn… it seems there’s a tendency these days for parents to protect their children from consequences. I admire your mother’s approach. My parents’ approach to my childhood transgressions was similar. They didn’t get angry, but they were firm, and I appreciate that.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie,

      I’m sure there was a tendency in *those* days as well for some parents to forget the value of teaching “the actions and consequences” lesson. And this gap in education, as you so rightly point out, carries forward.
      I suppose that sooner or later, most of us get the point but not before we have made some painful mistakes at times when there wasn’t a rescuer in sight!
      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your insights.

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